Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Figuring out how to play better at home is not something that Dave Rice figured would be an obstacle this season. Over his first two seasons, the Rebels lost only four times in the Thomas & Mack Center, and two of those games were in the Mountain West tournament.
This year UNLV (11-7, 2-3) has already lost five games in its home arena, including the last two. Those struggles have prompted Rice to try something a little different and have the Rebels stay at a Las Vegas hotel the night before Wednesday’s home game against Utah State (12-5, 2-3) at 8 p.m.
“I just want to make sure we don’t have any distractions,” Rice said. “I want to give it a feel for our guys that it’s business.”
It’s something Rice said he’s been thinking about doing before; for the Mountain West tournament maybe, or before the 74-71 loss to UNR on Jan. 8. After that game he decided to put in practice the same routine UNLV had when Rice was a player under Jerry Tarkanian, and this is going to be the way UNLV handles home games moving forward.
It’s a common practice among Division I football teams — UNLV always stays at a hotel the night before home football games — but less so for basketball. Junior forward Khem Birch said he doesn’t feel any different for home or away games but admits this particular group may be better in isolation.
“On the road it’s only us,” Birch said, “but at home I guess there are more distractions.”
The team stayed at the hotel Tuesday night and a bus will take them to classes Wednesday morning. No one would say which hotel the Rebels are at but Birch made it clear who did the choosing.
“The coaches, of course,” he said. “You can’t put us on the Strip.”
This game, which will air on CBS Sports Network, is a reunion of sorts for Rice, who after 10 years on the Rebels’ staff spent the 2004-05 season as an assistant under Utah State coach Stew Morrill.
The Aggies are one of two new additions to the Mountain West this season. San Jose State is the other and UNLV will face the Spartans on the road in one week.
Although they’ve played 30 times before, this is the first game between UNLV and Utah State since 1996. The Rebels dominate the series 27-3 but a lot has changed since then. In fact, the outlook for this game has changed even since the New Year.
Senior center Jarred Shaw, the team’s leading scorer, was suspended from the team in December and many believed he may be kicked off the team. However, in January he pleaded guilty to a third-degree felony marijuana possession charge and Shaw has averaged 16.5 points and eight rebounds per game in four games since being reinstated.
Shaw provides the inside presence the Aggies need for their shooters to find space on the perimeter. Utah State’s starting backcourt of Preston Medlin, Spencer Butterfield and TeNale Roland are hitting a combined 47.4 percent (36-of-76) behind the three-point line in conference play. Considering UNLV’s game plan against previous perimeter teams that will likely be the defensive focus again Wednesday.
“They’ll shoot them in transition and they screen extremely well, so we’ve got to make sure we do a good job of taking away their post play but also getting out to shooters,” Rice said.
Once UNLV gets to the Mack they’re going to have their hands full. Staying at a hotel doesn’t change that but Rice is hoping it triggers something in the Rebels that was present last week at the Pit yet missing from most home games.
“Is it going to guarantee a victory? No, but I think it’s going to help our focus and our mindset going forward,” Rice said. “… All we can do is move forward and try to do better, and I’m doing my part and I think that staying at a hotel is going to help us a lot.”