Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, April 17, 2013 | 2 a.m.
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- All UNLV men's basketball coverage
Dave Rice went around the room, from player to player, asking each one if he was completely committed to the 2013-14 UNLV basketball season. When the coach came to Carlos Lopez-Sosa, whose minutes have gone down each season at UNLV, the junior forward didn’t have an answer. He was fielding interest from a few schools across the country and didn’t want to commit to something that he may abandon a week later.
“That’s not the type of guy I am,” Lopez-Sosa said before a workout last week.
That meeting with Rice and the remaining Rebels was March 31, a day before freshman Anthony Bennett made his tearful goodbye to the program. Lopez-Sosa was pretty sure of his decision back then but wanted to take time to really consider what coming back meant, how things would have to be different.
“It didn’t click (last season), and by the time we realized we were really in trouble, it was too late,” Lopez-Sosa said. “The guys who were supposed to be leading this team, they were not very good at it.”
Now Lopez-Sosa plans to be one of those guys, the only returning senior on a team that lost its two leading scorers in the wake of its fourth straight Round of 64 exit from the NCAA Tournament. While his role will develop during the offseason, Lopez-Sosa seems to fit as the backup center, behind Khem Birch and ahead of Demitris Morant and incoming freshman Chris Wood.
Because Lopez-Sosa redshirted his freshman season and he stayed on track to graduate in four years, he had the option of transferring to any Division I school and playing right away, as he enrolled in a graduate program not offered at UNLV. Quintrell Thomas had that option last year and chose to stay, something Lopez-Sosa said Thomas advised against multiple times during the year.
“‘Man, you have to leave,’” Lopez-Sosa said Thomas told him as both struggled to see the court in 2012-13.
Then there’s Mike Moser, who was notably absent from that Sunday night meeting. Moser is expected to use the same rule to finish out his career with one season at Washington, although Arizona is also a possibility and a family member said Moser hadn’t made up his mind. His decision can’t become official until he finishes classes at UNLV this summer.
The choice of sticking it out at UNLV, and thus completing an eight-year desert career that started on the original Findlay Prep team, or jumping somewhere else for a better opportunity boiled down to a three-hour conversation with his family, Lopez-Sosa said. Speaking with his mother and maternal grandmother, who both live in Puerto Rico, it became clear he would stay put.
“‘You have to finish what you started, no matter what,’” Lopez-Sosa said they told him. “‘I know you didn’t get the chance to play as much as you wanted last year, but you have a chance now to prove yourself and prove wrong the doubters.’ And believe me, there are a lot of people out there who don’t want to see me do well.”
Lopez-Sosa is acutely aware of people talking about him, which really doesn’t make him unique in the sports world. Every slight, real or perceived, is used for motivation, and that certainly fits Lopez-Sosa’s junior year narrative.
When Moser returned from his elbow injury at the end of December, Lopez-Sosa donned the white and blue practice jersey that would define his role for the rest of the season. There were exceptions — most notably a 15-minute performance at home against New Mexico that earned him multiple rounds of applause (right) — but for most of the Mountain West season, Lopez-Sosa was a practice team player. His job was to make the other guys, those ahead of him on the depth chart, better.
Not surprisingly, he didn’t like it
“It came to a point where I said, ‘I’m done. I don’t want to practice, I don’t even want to be on campus. This is awful,’” Lopez-Sosa said.
What changed since then, and the reason UNLV coach Dave Rice said Thursday he’s “thrilled” to have Lopez-Sosa back, is that the 6-foot-11, 225-pound forward decided to own that role. He tweeted out his frustrations in mid-January, telling his followers that practices were now his games, and then he played like that.
“He practiced extremely well for us, particularly the last four to six weeks of the season,” Rice said.
The demotion came with a twist. While serving as a practice team player isn’t where anyone wants to be, it’s not without its benefits. After having to adapt his game to the next opponent’s center for three months — anything from Alex Kirk’s range to Colton Iverson’s relentlessness — Lopez-Sosa ended the year a more well-rounded player than he started it. He’s arguably a better ball-handler and definitely a guy to count on to go to the floor for a loose ball.
And that “What is he doing?” 3-point shot? Yeah, that’s now part of his repertoire as much as the pass-fake that’s still taught at Findlay. Lopez-Sosa had attempted (and missed) only one 3-pointer in his first two seasons before going 2-for-7 behind the arc this year. That means his attempts went from 1-in-215 as a freshman and sophomore to 1-in-6.3 as a junior.
That coincides with a big shooting percentage drop from 63.2 as a sophomore to 47.7 last year, though he took less than half the number of shots, too. He attempted more than one shot in a game only once since Jan. 9, rarely getting the opportunity to stay on the court long enough to attempt a second one if he had made the first.
That drop in playing time and production — 8.7 minutes, 2.2 points, 1.3 rebounds per game and seven games of no action in 2012-13 — is the reason no one would have been surprised if Lopez-Sosa went elsewhere for his last hurrah. Schools contacted his inner circle, Lopez-Sosa said, making him feel like a high school player getting recruited all over again.
Flattering aside, his conversations with family grounded him in the idea of sticking it out in Las Vegas. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Lopez-Sosa just passed his year anniversary dating Kaitlyn Thompson, a sophomore Rebel Girl. She wasn’t a part of the final process, Lopez-Sosa said, though the decision suggests he’s got his priorities straight.
But Thompson can’t guarantee Lopez-Sosa will be happy with his choice for basketball reasons. That falls on the player, who will try to prove himself worthy all over again.
“I didn’t ask (Rice) to make me any promises about playing time,” Lopez-Sosa said. “I just told him I wanted a fair shake based on play. If I deserve to play I should play.”
Is that how things will play out? Impossible to say. Lopez-Sosa seemed convinced in August that he wouldn’t be pushed to the end of the bench by guys such as Bennett and Khem Birch, yet that’s exactly what happened.
Lopez-Sosa said he didn’t feel like he got that fair shake last season, although he doesn’t hold it against anybody he’ll be playing with or for this upcoming year. In another example of how the demotion may have actually helped, he’ll go into next season commanding more respect from the teammates who saw him fall and then rise into a new role.
“These guys will follow me anywhere,” Lopez-Sosa said. “We have a great group of guys that just want to win. They’re hungry to win and that’s what we needed last year. We didn’t have that. We were more about individual goals and not about the team.”
In other words, Lopez-Sosa is about the team. Now he hopes to be a bigger part of it.