Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 | 2 a.m.
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ALBUQUERQUE — Asked enough times, Mike Moser will eventually tire of coming up with different ways to say the same thing. Does he feel ready to play? Yes. Does he feel 100 percent? For sure. How about 110 percent?
“Whatever you want to call it, I’m good to go,” Moser said. “I feel just as good as I did before I hurt it.”
UNLV coach Dave Rice announced after Tuesday’s practice that Moser will be available for the 24th-ranked Rebels’ (13-2) trip to No. 25 New Mexico (13-2) on Wednesday at 7 p.m. on CBS Sports Network. It will be Moser’s second game since dislocating his right elbow Dec. 9 at Cal, and his first since playing 12 spot minutes in the Dec. 29 loss at North Carolina.
Moser clearly wasn’t at full capacity for that game. Since then he hasn’t missed a practice and looks more comfortable with each passing day.
Rice said he didn’t know yet what type of role Moser would play against the Lobos, just that Moser would be available off the bench. It’s obviously not an ideal situation for Moser, who said it’s tougher to prepare for a game not knowing his role, but he’s just happy to get back on the court.
Not only does Moser add some experience to a team that lacks it, especially on the road, he also creates matchup and preparation problems for UNM coach Steve Alford, who already had his hands full trying to plan for UNLV freshman Anthony Bennett.
“We’ve played great teams and great players through 15 games,” said Alford, whose Lobos rank 12th in the RPI and 14th in strength of schedule. “But watching things on tape the last 7-10 days, this is the best team we’ve played to date and Anthony Bennett’s the best player we’ve had to go against to date. That’s probably the best compliment I can give them.”
This is the first Mountain West game for four of the Rebels’ top six scorers, including Bennett. Moser and senior point guard Anthony Marshall have both said they’ve talked to the newcomers about league play, and specifically this first game, but it’s something that can really only be understood firsthand.
“It will be similar to North Carolina,” Marshall said, “except 10 times more hostile.”
In other words, it will be unlike anything the Rebels have seen this year and, in some cases, their entire careers. Nothing that Bennett saw with Findlay Prep or Bryce Dejean-Jones went through at USC will compare to University Arena, which is better known as The Pit.
The last time UNLV was in Albuquerque, it was unceremoniously ousted from the NCAA Tournament by Colorado. And the last time the Rebels faced the Lobos in their home arena, UNLV went into halftime with a one-point lead and left with a 20-point loss. Things can go bad quickly against a really good team that plays with a distinct home-court advantage, and that’s exactly who the Lobos are. UNM is 84-11 in The Pit under Alford, though one of those losses did come earlier this year to South Dakota State.
Despite losing leading scorer and rebounder Drew Gordon to graduation, the Lobos haven’t missed a beat and once again have a case as the best team in the league. Alex Kirk, who missed last season after having back surgery, has stepped into the void, averaging 11.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Like Bennett, Kirk can stretch the defense out to the perimeter.
Other than Kirk, all of New Mexico’s key contributors this season averaged at least 13 minutes per game last year. It’s an experienced team with scoring threats all over the court, including Kendall Williams (14.9 ppg, 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio) at point guard and Tony Snell (11.1 ppg) on the wing.
The best news for the Lobos, which is a nightmare for the rest of the league, is that none of their top five scorers are seniors. Williams, Snell and forward Cameron Bairstow (7.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg) are juniors while Kirk and guard Hugh Greenwood (7.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg) are sophomores. Next year UNM also still has current junior Demetrius Walker (5.8 ppg) and it will add Kansas transfer Merv Lindsay.
Put that type of talent and experience together on a court and you’ve got a great recipe for success, especially when that court is in The Pit.
“It’s all gloomy and dark in there; the fans are cussing and yelling at you,” Marshall said. “As a player, those are the type of games you live for. There’s nothing like going to an opponent's house and hushing the crowd.”
Last year, the Rebels went into several road venues, including The Pit, with similar plans and fell short, including watching four consecutive crowds — Wyoming, TCU, New Mexico and Colorado State — storm the court after upsetting UNLV.
The bulk of the Rebels’ current rotation wasn’t on the bench for any of those games. This is a chance to start fresh, to forge a new identity in road conference games.
“New Mexico is going to be a helluva challenge,” Moser said. “It’s good to have a healthy fear of everybody, and I definitely have a healthy fear of this conference.”