Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014 | 2 a.m.
It’s safe to say the UNLV basketball season hasn’t gone according to plan.
The Rebels suffered shocking defeats to Air Force and UNR, both mediocre teams at best, and lost by 19 points to UC Santa Barbara. Worse yet, those losses came at home, where the Rebels are supposed to enjoy an advantage by playing before large crowds in the biggest arena in the Mountain West Conference.
With six regular-season games remaining, UNLV has one signature win — Jan. 15 at New Mexico.
The rest of the regular season is meaningless. UNLV’s streak of four straight tourney appearances won’t continue unless the Rebels somehow win three games in three days in next month’s conference tournament.
So, what caused the Rebels’ season to go off the cliff?
• Defending the home court: UNLV has lost six home games, two more than in coach Dave Rice’s first two seasons combined. In 2011-12, the Rebels went 18-1 at home and averaged 14,025 fans per game. Last season, they were 19-3 with 15,196 fans per game, which ranked No. 1 for attendance on the West Coast. This season, UNLV is averaging just 12,988 fans per game.
There is little energy at the Thomas & Mack Center, partially because the players aren’t giving fans reasons to cheer. They scored 48 points Feb. 8 against Wyoming — and won. By the time they erased an 11-point deficit during the final three minutes Feb. 1 against Boise State, most fans had left.
Why the lackluster performances in the Mack this year? There have been different answers for different games, including times when the opponent was able to exploit some of UNLV’s weaknesses. But the result has been a vicious circle. The team’s uneven performance gives fans little to cheer about, which takes the energy out of the arena, which blunts the home advantage.
• New faces: Talent doesn’t always equal victories, a lesson the Rebels have learned numerous times.
Khem Birch and Jelan Kendrick were on the high school McDonald’s All-America team. Roscoe Smith started on Connecticut’s 2011 national championship team and is one of the nation’s leaders in rebounding and double-doubles. But with the exception of Birch and Bryce Dejean-Jones, the Rebels’ leading scorer, the roster is mostly filled with new players. They weren’t familiar with each other’s style, didn’t have established roles and have failed to adjust during games. Those shortcomings have yielded an array of problems. Against Santa Barbara, the Rebels couldn’t score on the zone defense. Against Air Force, they couldn’t guard the back-door cut.
• The stat says it all: When Dejean-Jones gets the ball, he’s always looking to score, frequently taking ill-advised shots to the disgust of fans at the Mack. So when he leads the team with 74 assists through 26 games, it’s a good indication that UNLV has gotten away from its mission offensively. There has been too much one-on-one play and not enough sharing the basketball.
UNLV has 341 assists, to rank 232rd nationally out of 351 teams. Last year, they had 562 assists. Enough said.