Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014 | 2 a.m.
SAN JOSE, Calif. — To many observers, San Jose State’s court — complete with five shielded Spartans in attack position — might be more intimidating than the basketball team. Thinking that way could get UNLV (13-7, 4-3) in trouble on its road trip Wednesday, so the Rebels are trying to focus on what the Spartans (6-14, 0-8) do well rather than their record.
“Don’t take them lightly,” said junior Bryce Dejean-Jones. “We have to play them the same way we play everybody.”
The game tips off at 7 p.m. in the Event Center and will stream on ESPN3.com.
The Spartans are one of two new teams to the Mountain West this season. UNLV dispatched the other, Utah State, with a great defensive effort at home last week in a 62-42 victory.
While Utah State is off to a disappointing 2-5 start in league play, the transition has been even more difficult for first-year coach Dave Wojcik. Outside of back-to-back home losses to Colorado State and New Mexico by a combined six points, no other game has been within single digits. The freshmen-laden Spartans are coming off a 21-point loss to Boise State, where Wojcik had spent the past three seasons as associate head coach.
All that is to say that for a group of young players, including Bishop Gorman grad and leading scorer Rashad Muhammad, every game carries huge import as they search for that elusive first league victory.
“It’s a huge game for them,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice, “but it’s a bigger game for us and that’s what our mindset needs to be.”
UNLV has won two in a row in wildly different fashion. After that defensive performance against the Aggies, the Rebels had to change their defensive game plan in the middle of Saturday’s home game against Fresno State. They ended up holding on for a two-point overtime victory.
That game was the most recent example of one area that Rice feels the team has improved on throughout the season.
“One of the biggest things is our ability to make changes within the course of the game,” Rice said.
From unique lineup combinations to wholesale system changes, the Rebels have seemed a bit more adaptive during the game than they were early in the season. That’s something they’ll still need to improve on throughout the year but they’re hoping it won’t be necessary Saturday.
Muhammad, who received little Division I interest despite helping Gorman win another state title his senior year, has started only one game but still leads San Jose State in minutes, points and three-point shooting percentage. He’s hitting 43.7 percent (55-of-126) behind the three-point line for a team that likes to shoot it from deep more than any other in the country.
The Spartans lead the nation in the percentage of points they get from beyond the arc (42.4) and rank second in percentage of 3-pointers attempted out of total shots (48). Based on their record the Spartans have done far more dying by the 3 than living by it, but as Fresno State showed on Saturday it’s always tough to win when an opponent starts the game hitting its deep shots. And against a team that takes as many of those shots as San Jose State does — 26.1 attempts per game — there are a lot of opportunities to catch fire.
“We can’t allow ourselves to be that team that they get that first win on,” said junior Roscoe Smith.
Rice said Muhammad would be at the top of UNLV’s scouting report. However, a freshman wall or something else may help the Rebels in containing the former Gael.
Since scoring 28 in a two-point loss to Colorado State, Muhammad has been on a steady decline. Over the past three games he has only one more made field goal than do the Spartans painted on the court.
Muhammad is 1-for-17 over that stretch and his scoring average — 14.8 points per game — hasn’t been this low since the third game of the season. But if the Rebels are going to avoid overlooking the team as a whole, that has to start with its leading scorer.
“I know that it will be a big game for him playing against UNLV,” Rice said.