AP Photo/Eric Draper
Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014 | 9:06 a.m.
More than two months into the season, the Rebels are back where they started at point guard.
Junior Deville Smith was key to UNLV’s 76-73 victory at New Mexico on Wednesday, scoring 10 of his 17 points in the second half. Over 33 minutes, he shot 6-for-9 from the field, including 3-of-5 on 3-point attempts, and outdueled the Lobos’ Hugh Greenwood much of the night.
Deville Smith won the starting point guard job over the summer and then lost it in the second game of the season when he went down with an injury and freshman Kendall Smith stepped up.
It’s been a back-and-forth battle between those two for the top spot throughout the year, with Deville Smith winning it again because of his performances at the Orleans Arena, only to lose it once more to another minor leg injury. A shared job isn’t what UNLV coach Dave Rice is looking for, which means it’s once more Deville Smith’s role to lose.
“Our guys rallied around (Deville),” Rice said. “I would like to have someone produce themselves as the main point, and I think Deville will be that guy moving forward.”
Kendall Smith has 13 starts to Deville Smith’s four, and the freshman still averages more minutes per game (20.4 to 19). But that’s about to change. At the same time, Deville Smith started to find his groove, Kendall Smith, who played only four minutes against New Mexico, started a swoon he has yet to overcome.
Over the last seven games, he’s shooting 20.1 percent (6-for-29) and has eight assists to 14 turnovers. Deville Smith isn’t great in that department either — in the same span he has 19 assists to 18 turnovers — but his shooting has been an asset in several games. Plus, the junior is the better defender right now.
Free throws are your friend
Rice said part of UNLV’s game plan was to get to the free-throw line. While that’s always a goal, he put extra emphasis on it in this game for a few reasons.
The first was that he figured his team might need extra rest to combat the altitude in Albuquerque. Standing at the line for a minute provides just that. And, generally, a coach doesn’t expect his team to shoot 50 percent from the field at the Pit, so Rice figured the Rebels would need those free throws to stay alive.
Even though UNLV did shoot 50 percent, he was still right. UNLV’s last field goal in the game was Deville Smith’s crossover and pull-up jumper over Greenwood with 5:11 remaining. The Rebels’ final five points came at the free-throw line, where they shot a solid 77.8 percent for the game despite missing two front ends of one-and-ones.
Free throws were also pivotal to keeping their lead in the first half. Over the last eight minutes, UNLV shot 3-for-11 from the field but stayed in front in part because it made 6-of-7 at the free-throw line.
It’s rare for a player with a middling to good career to break out for a huge senior season. UNLV will see two of those guys in a four-day span.
The first was the Lobos’ Cameron Bairstow, who lived up to the hype with 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting with six rebounds, three assists and three blocks in 35 minutes. He probably got away with a few offensive fouls, but it was also smart of him to use his substantial frame to create that space once he realized the refs weren’t going to call it.
Bairstow averaged 12.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game last year, so this isn’t completely out of nowhere, but those numbers are now at 20.4 and 7.2 with a 55.4 shooting percentage.
Rice said his happiest moment of the day was Wednesday afternoon at the team hotel when he realized Bairstow was a senior, not a junior, as he had thought. UNLV’s Khem Birch said he’s never seen someone improve so much in one year.
“He even tried to dunk on me,” Birch said. “He’s gotten way better.”
The next one up is San Diego State point guard Xavier Thames, who’s been the Mountain West MVP. He’s averaging 16.9 points and 2.6 assists per game and is the unquestioned leader of the best team in the league thus far.
Thames’ 1.219 points per possession and 53.2 effective field-goal percentage blow his previous career highs out of the water. Containing him will be UNLV’s biggest challenge on Saturday at No. 10 San Diego State.
“Xavier Thames has become my new Chase Tapley,” Rice said. “He’s become my favorite player in the league.”