Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, March 5, 2014 | 2 a.m.
UNLV seniors Carlos Lopez-Sosa and Kevin Olekaibe will walk onto Jerry Tarkanian Court with members of their families about 16 minutes before tip-off tonight. They will wave to the white-out crowd, take a bow, and then everyone involved will attempt to leave that emotion on the sideline as the Rebels host No. 10 San Diego State (24-3, 14-2) in a pivotal home regular-season finale.
An upset would likely clinch third place for the Rebels, the same seed they’ve had for the last four Mountain West tournaments. And now with an 11-team field, the 3 seed (along with the top two) gets to play on Thursday against a team that begins its tournament on Wednesday.
It’s an advantageous position and it would also mean momentum heading into Saturday’s game at UNR. The only way UNLV (19-10, 10-6) is making the NCAA Tournament is by winning the conference tournament, and the Rebels know their best chance to do that is pushing forward at full speed and building on what they’ve been able to accomplish lately.
“The best way we can honor our seniors is by playing well,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice.
“It’s a tough loss,” said junior Bryce Dejean-Jones. “Roscoe’s been a big part of our team, not only his play but his attitude and the spirit he brings.”
As a senior, Lopez-Sosa was going to start anyways, but Roscoe Smtih’s absence means more minutes for Christian Wood and possibly some time for Demetris Morant. That’s a big challenge for the younger guys because in conference games San Diego State is the best offensive rebounding team in the league.
Although the Aztecs and senior leader Xavier Thames had faltered a bit of late, losing two out of four in mid-February, they’ve bounced back and even debuted a new kind of motion offense in a 15-point win at Fresno State last weekend. Much like UNLV’s 40 minutes of zone defense at Air Force, it’s going to give the opponent something extra to think about.
About that zone. UNLV certainly isn’t going to run it for the entire game, but Olekaibe said it could benefit the Rebels to mix it in.
“They don’t have a lot of shooters on their team,” he said. “They’re more penetrate and rebound.”
In league games the Aztecs rank second to last in 3-point percentage, ahead of only UNLV. If SDSU struggles from deep early, expect a heavy dose of the Rebels’ 2-3 zone look.
Of course, the problem with that is that it leaves UNLV vulnerable to offensive rebounds against a team that lives on them. That’s the tight-rope Rice will have to walk throughout the night.
“It’s going to be about team rebounding in this game,” he said. “We know San Diego State’s going to go to the boards like they normally do.”
While it’s senior night for only two guys, Rice knows that more than that will probably play their final home game tonight. Aside from any possible undergraduate transfers, Dejean-Jones, Roscoe Smith and Jelan Kendrick are all on pace to graduate by this summer. That means they will have options, although everyone says they’re saving those conversations for the end of the season.
“We still have a lot of games left,” Dejean-Jones said.
They’re hoping that includes three more in the Thomas & Mack Center, finishing with the tournament final in a week and a half. To win it the Rebels would likely need to beat San Diego State, and they’d prefer to just get started on that right now.
But before that can get going, the Mack will take a few minutes to honor two guys who’ve spent a combined six seasons at UNLV. Both Lopez-Sosa (Findlay Prep) and Olekaibe (Cimarron-Memorial High) have been around the Las Vegas Valley for longer than that.
While Lopez-Sosa’s career has not gone the way he planned — his minutes have decreased all four seasons — Rice said it hasn’t affected the way Lopez-Sosa has carried himself and tried to lead in practice. And for Olekaibe, who transferred home from Fresno State to be closer to his ailing father, walking out with his mother and brothers is something he’s been thinking about, but not as much as how to beat SDSU.
“It’s going to be a special moment for me and my family,” Olekaibe said. “I’m going to enjoy the moment, but I know I’ve got to focus on the game at hand.”