Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014 | 2 a.m.
The conference season is long, but when UNLV coach Dave Rice says a team can’t lose on its home court and compete for a league title, it sounds like UNLV’s fate has already been sealed. Of course, that’s only when taken at face value.
Teams lose at home all the time and still win conference titles. In general, that defeat isn’t to the team picked to finish 10th, but at 2-0, Air Force certainly looks like anything besides a bottom-feeder.
The Rebels (10-5, 1-1) will try to bounce back against another team with a nice Mountain West start in UNR (7-8, 2-0). As much as people may be lingering on that 75-68 loss to Air Force last Saturday, the Rebels say they know better than to dwell in the past.
“We can’t worry about the Air Force game when we have Reno Wednesday,” said junior Roscoe Smith.
UNLV and UNR tip-off at 6:15 p.m. at the Thomas & Mack Center, and the game will air on CBS Sports Network. The game is part of the Governor’s Series between the two universities. UNLV won the inaugural competition last year 37.5-10.5 and UNLV currently leads 9-3.
That’s something for the fans. For the Rebels, their focus centers not on bragging rights but squarely on senior guard Deonte Burton.
Burton, listed at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, is averaging 21.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. He also leads the country in minutes per game at an absurd 39.1. Burton has played all but one minute over the team’s last eight games, which includes two overtime sessions.
“I’m surprised, actually, that he’s still in college,” Rice said. “I thought he would leave after last year. That’s the respect I have for him.”
Rice compared Burton to another point guard with the NBA in his future: Arizona State’s Jahii Carson. If Burton starts to do anything close to the 40-point performance Carson dropped on UNLV earlier this season, Rice said he would be proactive in switching defensive philosophies.
“We’ll make that adjustment,” Rice said. “And we may throw everything at him anyway.”
The Wolf Pack is suddenly a more intriguing team thanks to the addition of 6-foot-9 forward AJ West, who provides the team with an inside option. West has played in four games since being cleared by the NCAA following his transfer from Monroe College, and he’s averaging 9.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.
West likely hasn’t seen anything close to the Rebels inside tandem of Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch, but still he adds a wrinkle to UNR’s attack.
The Air Force loss alone doesn’t completely sink the Rebels, but back-to-back defeats at home as a big favorite could accomplish that. Still, without a marquee victory on their resume — and with only a couple of chances to get one in league play — the Rebels are probably already down to pinning their NCAA Tournament hopes on winning the Mountain West tournament championship.
The Rebels believe they’re still capable of going on a hot streak and, one game at a time of course, winning the league. The odds are certainly against it, but that’s of no concern right now. There’s only one way to start down that road, and it’s by defending their home court the way the Rebels failed to do Saturday.
“We’re looking forward to getting that one behind us,” Roscoe Smith said. "We’re capable of winning games.”