Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.
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Carlos Lopez used to look like the kind of guy who had skipped a meal or two in his day.
Well, that's because the UNLV freshman forward actually did. In fact, he'd skip one almost every day.
As soon as he arrived on campus this fall, Jason Kabo — the Rebels' strength and conditioning guru — wasn't going to let that fly. For Lopez, who at the time had 198 pounds and 10 percent body fat filling out his lanky 6-foot-11 frame, the goals for his year as a redshirt were made to be just as lofty off the practice floor as they were on it.
"We tried to make sure he was eating at least three meals a day, for one," Kabo said. "There was about a two- or three-week period where I was calling him and telling him to call me every time he ate and tell me what he ate."
Then came the Peanut PowerButter.
It's a supplement that Kabo used to pack pounds efficiently onto the bodies of former Rebels big men and current NBA stalwarts Joel Anthony and Lou Amundson.
It tastes like regular peanut butter, but contains 24 grams of protein per serving as opposed to eight grams in a standard serving of Jif or Skippy.
By mixing it and blending it in a shake, Kabo said Lopez is getting an extra 700 calories a day.
"I either mix it with chocolate and it tastes like a Reese's peanut butter cup, or I mix it with strawberry and it tastes like Cap'n Crunch cereal," Kabo said.
After the food was the hard part — The weights.
"He kind of had to learn how to work, you could put it," Kabo added. "He wasn't used to lifting at the same intensity as I was used to having the guys at. The first few weeks in the fall he was like 'What are you doing to me?'
"We're doing incline bench press the other day, he had 175 pounds on the bar. I think we had five sets of three or four. He did it, and he got to the third and fourth set and he's like 'Oh my God, I can't believe I did that.'"
With the off-court improvements, everything has snowballed for Lopez. What was a 198-pound softer body back in August is now a defined, more solid 210 pounds with 7 percent body fat.
"I wouldn't say it's hard to add muscle to (his frame) — I'd say it's harder to notice it," Kabo said. "Your muscles are so elongated, you're so thin. You'll never look at him and say 'Oh, he's gotten bulky.' He's put on more muscle mass and he's more defined, but he'll never look like Brice (Massamba) or Darris (Santee). You'll never see that."
Massamba and Santee, in turn, have seen and felt Lopez's improvement first-hand this season in practices, as he's become a strong force for the red squad, which battles daily with UNLV's regular rotation players.
"My mindset is much stronger than it was in the beginning of the year," Lopez said. "The beginning of the year, I couldn't do anything with Brice or Darris. Boxing out wasn't my strength. Now, I'm feeling more comfortable with it."
Massamba may have taken notice better than anyone.
The two close friends who played together for a year down the road at Findlay Prep in the Henderson foothills now wage daily wars in the paint on both ends of the court.
"Everything he does is tough," Massamba said. "He takes the ball to the basket tougher, he's rebounding better, he's playing physical. He didn't used to play that physical at Findlay Prep when he started. He's doing good things."
Lopez's physical presence, Massamba said, catches teammates' eyes, too.
Aside from beginning to grow his hair back out, adding a chin-strap beard and a tattoo to pay tribute to his beloved grandmother on his right shoulder, Lopez presents a more hulking image, especially in his upper arms and shoulders.
He clearly paid heed to the 'sink or swim' opportunity given by the UNLV coaching staff when he was told he'd redshirt this season. Lopez looks the part of a man, rather than just a tall boy.
"He's swimming pretty good right now," Massamba said.
The work for Lopez during his redshirt season, however, is far from complete.
Kabo said the goal for Lopez is to get his weight up to 220 by season's end, then successfully maintain that over the summer while trimming a bit more body fat.
Also, for the rest of the season, team practice sessions are serving as time in the laboratory, so to speak, for Lopez.
"The thing we ask of Carlos in practice is just to do more," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "Expand your game, try to do things you're not necessarily comfortable doing. Try to take advantage of this year to work on the things that you do well, but also expand your arsenal. I think he's doing a good job and he has a great attitude about competing every day.
The thing about it is he has very good instincts. He sees the floor, he anticipates well. Those are things that are difficult to teach."
The things that Lopez once wasn't comfortable with are what he's developed.
He came in with a nice set of abilities on the perimeter, and has exceptional ball-handling skills for his size. After a few months, he's looked more and more comfortable on the defensive end, is a stronger and more aggressive rebounder and plays with the attitude that he belongs, rather than looking like a freshman finding his way.
At the moment, he displays an offensive game in practice reminiscent of UNLV 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Chace Stanback, which can quickly spread out an opposing defense.
He's also been a nice complement on the red squad to 6-foot-8 Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas, who is redshirting this season per NCAA rules. While Thomas is a bruiser who naturally can knock guys around inside, he can clear the road for Lopez at the same time.
Add in the fact that Lopez has traveled with the team to most of its road games this season, and he's getting the full Division-I experience minus the actual game play.
As time passes, he looks more game-ready by the day.
"Sometimes, when I'm sitting on the end of the bench, I'm like 'Damn, I wish I was playing,'" Lopez said. "But it's paying off. It's really paying off right now, and I'm ready to take it on."