Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013 | 2 a.m.
In its final nonleague game before the start of Mountain West play, the UNLV basketball team has a simple goal when it hosts Cal State Fullerton at 7 p.m. today at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The Rebels enter on a five-game winning streak, beating opponents by an average of 22 points per game in finding their rhythm offensively. They play New Year’s Day at Fresno State to open league play, meaning the tuneup against Cal State Fullerton needs to be a continuation of past solid performances.
“We just need to make sure to keep the edge we have,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “It all starts on the defensive end. We have to make sure we continue to defensively rebound the ball and be very efficient on the offensive end. League is just one game away, and Fullerton presents a challenge for us.”
Although Cal State Fullerton (5-7) has a losing record and appears to be the perfect squad for UNLV to extend its winning ways against, Rice expects the Big West Conference foe to be formidable. After a five-game losing streak in November, Cal State Fullerton has rebounded to win three of its past four games.
The Titans are led by guard Michael Williams, a transfer from San Francisco who averages 15 points per game and has scored in double figures in every game.
“They have an experienced group. ... It is one of those games we are going to have to be ready to play,” Rice said.
That hasn’t been a problem the past three weeks with UNLV winning six of seven games. The lone loss was a close defeat at Arizona in which the Rebels led late against the nation’s No. 1-ranked team.
In the six wins, starting with a 30-point victory Nov. 30 against Tennessee-Martin, the Rebels have won by at least 18 points in each game.
“We just found ourselves as a team,” said Roscoe Smith, UNLV’s junior forward and the reigning Mountain West Player of the Week. “It was tough at the beginning (of the season) because we were a young team; we had a lot of new guys. But we adapted with one another, and things have been clicking with us.”
Smith leads the nation in rebounding with 13.1 boards per game and eight times has recorded a double-double of points and rebounds. He leads UNLV in scoring at 12.8 points per game and has been its most consistent player.
Others, however, have led the charge in the turnaround.
Point guard Deville Smith recovered from an early-season knee injury to strengthen the UNLV backcourt, scoring 36 points on 56.5 percent shooting in two games last week to help the Rebels win the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic. Center Khem Birch averages 11.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per game and is sixth nationally with 3.8 blocked shots per game. Bryce Dejean-Jones scores 11.9 points per game, and Kevin Olekaibe also scores in double figures at 10.5 points per game.
Put it all together and the Rebels are a different team from earlier in the season, when they dropped four of their initial seven games.
“We just matured as a group,” Roscoe Smith said. “As time progressed, our offensive set got better and we identified ways to score out of our schemes.”