Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011 | 2 a.m.
UNLV’s last tuneup for a journey to the Midwest was a rout against an overmatched opponent, and the business trip that followed didn’t go well.
This time around the midweek opponent — Texas El-Paso tonight at 7 at the Thomas & Mack Center — should provide more of a challenge. And the Rebels have to hope that it also sparks a change in their Central-time-zone production on Saturday against Illinois.
Before the Rebels turn their attentions to a rematch with the team that knocked them out of the 2011 NCAA Tournament, they have to take care of business against the Miners.
It’s UNLV’s first game in its home arena in 22 days. It also, on paper, is a beneficial matchup.
UTEP (2-4) has the nation’s sixth-worst 3-point field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to make nearly 44 percent of their attempts. UNLV (9-2), meanwhile, has taken the ninth-most 3-pointers in the country, and made a respectable 36 percent of them.
That could mean a season-high for 3-point attempts, or at least a game approaching the 32 the Rebels took against North Carolina.
“We always want to play inside-out,” coach Dave Rice said, “but if the opportunity presents itself we certainly want our guys to feel they have the freedom to shoot the ball.”
Based on the numbers, the opportunity will certainly be there. Perhaps the Rebels won’t take all of those looks, though, because they know they won’t be able to get the same shots against the Illini.
Either way, sophomore forward Carlos Lopez will be ready.
In an uncertain frontcourt picture, Lopez has emerged as a spark off the bench with good touch offensively and a developing defensive game.
“Carlos is getting an opportunity and he’s making the most of it,” Rice said. “We’re really pleased with the energy that he brings and he provides a low-post presence for us.”
The Rebels’ post players are Brice Massamba, Lopez and Quintrell Thomas, with Mike Moser and Chace Stanback capable of posting up or playing on the perimeter.
Massamba is solid in his role as a facilitator but rarely does more than that offensively. Thomas is expected to play against UTEP after not getting any minutes at Wisconsin.
Lopez’s minutes have also bounced around this season, from back-to-back 7-minute outings against Cal Poly and USC to a high of 20 against North Carolina. Lately, though, he’s carving a nice role for himself off the bench.
Over the past three games, Lopez has averaged 14 minutes and shot 80 percent (8 for 10) from the floor. And what’s not in the box score is the extra bounce he brings to the offense.
“Definitely I’m getting better,” Lopez said. “Keep looking to get a chance every time I go in the game, and it’s actually paying off.”
Rice said the timing has worked out to give Lopez ample court time recently. Well, timing and the work Lopez has put in.
“He’s always been a hard worker, from Day 1 of practice,” Rice said. “We’re excited about how he’s playing right now.”
Lopez said that he’s always trying to put in extra work and add weight — he’s listed at 6-foot-11, 215 pounds — but on the court he wants to work on his defense.
“Trying to work to be able to guard the forward better,” Lopez said. “Tell where he’s going before he does.”
Tonight should give Lopez and his coaches a chance to see if his defensive game is catching up to his offense.
The Miners’ leading scorers are Julian Washburn and Gabriel McCulley, a pair of 6-7 forwards who have the ability to play away from the basket.
Washburn, a freshman, is a top-150 recruit who often plays out of control, but has the ability to scorch defenses if he gets hot.
McCulley, the team’s only senior, will be playing in just his third game this season after coming back from surgery for a stress fracture in his left leg. The cobwebs are clear, though, as he notched 13 rebounds and 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting in the Miners’ 73-69 victory over New Mexico State on Sunday.
“It’s a vastly improved team,” Rice said. “It’s no coincidence that they’ve played their best basketball once McCulley’s been back.”
With that in mind, running and firing 3-pointers may be the way to go.
However the Rebels end up playing it, Lopez will be prepared when his number is called.
“It’s a great feeling,” Lopez said, “when the coaches give you an opportunity.”