Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, July 15, 2011 | 2 a.m.
When Lon Kruger and the now-departed UNLV coaching staff landed 6-foot-8 UCLA transfer Mike Moser a year ago, they looked at it as a big-time steal.
When Dave Rice and his staff took the wheel in April, they almost immediately realized that having a hungry and talented Moser with three years of eligibility remaining at their disposal was a gift.
But it was the space between those revelations during which Moser experienced some of his most valuable growth as an athlete.
"Having to sit out, it was really frustrating all the time," he said. "You've still got a chip on your shoulder from the year before but can't really prove yourself to anyone by just sitting back and practicing."
The trying year Moser speaks of was his freshman season at UCLA. Despite coming in as a highly touted recruit out of Portland, Ore., he only played in 15 of the Bruins' 32 games, totaling just 70 minutes and four buckets along the way. When he came out on the other end, his confidence was a bit rattled and it was time for a change of scenery to try to get it back.
After choosing UNLV over San Diego State, Saint Mary's and Portland State, the local legend of Mike Moser gradually grew behind the scenes. He scored a game-high 15 points in last October's annual FirstLook scrimmage to officially kick off the season, then over the next several months, at times, Moser looked like the best player on the floor during team practices.
He was learning just as much, though, from some former NBA players who he began running pick-up games with at a 24 Hour Fitness location in Henderson. When the Rebels headed out of town for road games, Moser would bang around with the likes of Jerome Williams, Ime Udoka and Tracy Murray.
His relationship with Murray — a former UCLA star, 12-year NBA veteran and current color commentator on Bruin's radio broadcasts — began while Moser was at UCLA. It was fitting that the two clicked personally, as their playing styles were similar. Murray, at 6-foot-7, made millions as a perimeter threat who could beat opponents in a variety of ways. Moser was the ideal pupil to take under his wing.
"When I first showed up at practice, I saw this long kid who could shoot the ball a little bit, and I thought, 'Wow, this kid could help the Bruins,'" Murray recalled. "Then I saw him not getting any playing time. I didn't know what it was about. And when you're not used to that, you kind of lose your confidence."
Murray just so happened to move to Las Vegas a little over a year ago, and just as valuable as what he'd go on to teach Moser on the court during free-flowing hardwood sessions was the knowledge he and his pals dropped on him when they would go out to eat afterward.
They'd also hang out when Murray attended a handful of UNLV games, which he said he plans to continue doing.
"I'd talk about how much I wanted to play, and they'd talk me down, tell me not to get too worked up about it," Moser recalled. "The biggest thing for me was learning to be patient, wait your turn. Having to sit out, it was really frustrating, all the time."
Added Murray: "I think he's a strong kid mentally. Anybody who can go through a year with (UCLA) coach (Ben) Howland, because he's so demanding and you may be put in a role you don't like, it takes even more mental toughness to push through that year. He did that. He was very positive, uplifting with his teammates, and he worked hard in practice. He's tough."
Moser eventually made it through the season in street clothes in smooth fashion, but at the end came a brief bout with uncertainty when Kruger unexpectedly took the vacant head coaching post at Oklahoma on April 1.
It was a unique situation, as Moser wasn't left with much of a choice if the coach who replaced Kruger was someone he didn't mesh with. Having burned his redshirt year, it was either stay put or burn another year of eligibility.
"Naturally I panicked," he said. "Even after coach Rice was hired, it was, 'Who is this guy?'"
"But he's kind of known me from before. He knows my potential and how bad I want to win. Talking to him and about the new style he's implementing, along with the coaches he's brought in who can really push us to play that style, it kind of fits together nicely. I almost feel more comfortable now than I did watching the whole year."
Rice realized right off the bat how important Moser could be to the program's future and made a convincing pitch to him just a couple of days after his hire, when Rice sat down and had one-on-one meetings with each of his inherited players.
"The way that we approached it was we needed to re-recruit the guys and share our vision for the program and not take the guys for granted," Rice said. "We needed to sell them on what we plan to do.
"I think the first thing that always stands out with Mike is his athleticism, his ability to attack the basket. I also think he can be a terrific rebounder for us, but I think he's a much better shooter than people think. The word that stands out to me more than anything is versatility. He'll play multiple positions for us."
He's also versatile in the sense that he can fit into any style of offense. Kruger and his staff several times during the 2010-11 season gushed about how much of an impact Moser could have for them when he became eligible. They'd discuss how bothersome his length would be on defense, how he could spread the floor on offense and score in a variety of ways, both as a shooter and aggressor with the ball.
With the uptempo style that Rice and his staff have vowed to employ, UNLV almost looks like a better fit now for Moser than it was a year ago.
"I feel like it's going to kind of get me back to the way I was playing in high school and in AAU ball," he said. "I feel like I've got to play a different role in coach Kruger's offense than in this one. I know I'll be counted on as a utility guy, as well. We're going to be kind of smaller this year. I know running the floor is one of my strengths; I do that naturally. Being a bigger guard, having mismatches and being able to exploit those is something me and coach Rice have been able to talk about."
Added Rice: "It's really perfect because he's going to have space to play and he's going to have freedom. There will be an opportunity for him to utilize his athleticism in transition, and he has an opportunity to be a force on the offensive boards."
Individually, expect Moser to spend plenty of one-on-one time with UNLV assistant Stacey Augmon, who not only was one of the greatest players in Rebels history, but also became an All-American with a very similar game and build compared to what Moser works with.
In fact, growing up in Portland while Augmon was playing with the hometown Trailblazers, Moser drew comparisons to the 15-year NBA veteran on appearance alone.
"People have been telling me that since I was little, with my (long) arms and legs," Moser recalled. "I definitely see the similarities. I know for sure that it's going to be up to me this year to be that defender that he was for his team. I'm definitely going to try to force some similarities for sure."
Another quality of Moser's that Rice likes to point out is his natural leadership ability.
Despite redshirting and practicing primarily as a member of the scout team last year, it was clear that he had no hesitations about being vocal. He was the voice of the scout team, acting as a motivator for them while being a pest to the Rebels' regulars.
He quickly established himself as one of the team's more outgoing, personable and likable personalities, and those skills will help keep everyone's spirits up some as UNLV tries to get off of the ground this fall in with its preparations for playing 40 minutes of fast-paced ball every night — something not nearly as easy as it may seem. The Rebels experienced a taste of what's to come already during three weeks of training with the new coaching staff this spring.
The staff would make them play that nonstop, up-and-down style for three or four minutes at a time. They'd do so 12 times with short breaks, simulating what a game coached by Dave Rice will feel like. The need for more conditioning carried into the summer, where Moser said the guys make a habit of trying to play with a 10- or 12-second shot clock in their heads during pick-up games with no coaches around.
Moser will gladly welcome the physical hurdles, though, with what was mentally the toughest stretch of his basketball career now all but completely in the past.
"The day we started workouts, we didn't last long," he said. "Nobody threw up that day, but there were definitely some people close for sure.
"The biggest difference is that we're going to have to be in probably the best shape of our lives, all around, from the first five to the last guy, to play this style of basketball. As hard as we're working this summer as a unit across the board, we'll be ready come November."