Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Monday, Dec. 31, 2012 | 2 a.m.
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First things first: Coming out of the Dean Smith Center victorious was always a long shot for No. 20 UNLV (11-2). Not only does North Carolina (10-3) have a home nonconference winning streak that dates to 2005, but the Tar Heels are talented. Not to the degree they were in last year’s loss to the Rebels at the Orleans Arena, but this was a team motivated both by that defeat and the fact that it had come up short in its only other big nonconference games this year.
Basically, the Rebels were an underdog for a reason. And because of how the game played out — a really bad start followed by stretches of good and great possessions — it offered a canvas to paint the 79-73 loss however you wanted.
Think the Rebels were underprepared and not ready for bigger stages? You could make that argument. Think the final 30 minutes showed growth from a young team that will now handle road games against teams such as New Mexico and at San Diego State better than it would have before the UNC loss? You could make that case, too, though the better evidence will come Jan. 9 when the Rebels travel to Albuquerque.
The point is most people chalked this one up as a likely loss at the beginning of the season, and depending on your point of view you can make as much or as little out of this game as you want. The caveat to this is that UNC had to play without Reggie Bullock, its second-leading scorer and rebounder, yet the Tar Heels didn’t seem to miss a beat.
UNC lost a starter while UNLV got one back, but you wouldn’t know that just from watching the game. Which brings us to the starter UNLV got back.
Mike Moser was not the Rebels’ problem
After the game, Moser said he wasn’t limited, but UNLV coach Dave Rice and my own eyes said differently. He played 12 minutes before fouling out, tallying just one rebound and a 3-pointer, an important shot that cut the lead to nine just before halftime.
On Wednesday, after Moser practiced for the first time since suffering a dislocated elbow Dec. 9 at Cal, he said there was “no way” he would play at UNC. He said the same thing the next day. Whether that was just misdirection or Moser really didn’t think he’d be ready to play doesn’t matter. The important thing is he was good enough to play, and in trying to fulfill a difficult role, Moser looked very much like a guy coming off an injury.
Rice used Moser in short bursts to give Anthony Bennett and Khem Birch breaks. Those stretches could have been longer, but Moser quickly got into foul trouble, a common problem for guys readjusting to game speed.
I saw a lot of comments after the game that Moser disrupted the team’s chemistry. Although it’s true Rice must figure out how to best handle his rotation now that he finally has his full complement of players, to say that Moser was at the center of UNLV’s struggles against UNC is ridiculous.
First off, the Rebels were already down six points when he entered the game. Then there’s the fact he was barely on the court enough to make a significant impact. And to say that Birch’s struggles — 1-of-4 shooting with four turnovers — were the result of Moser coming back into the rotation, as I saw suggested by several people, is misguided in this instance. Birch’s troubles — trying to do too much with the ball and getting pushed around by bigger post players — were his own.
Odds and ends
• The rotation for conference play, as I see it: Anthony Marshall, Bryce Dejean-Jones, Katin Reinhardt, Justin Hawkins, Moser, Bennett, and Birch, with Quintrell Thomas, Savon Goodman and Carlos Lopez-Sosa occasionally getting bigger minutes in certain matchups. To get the Rebels’ best talent out on the floor, those first seven guys need to all see close to starters’ minutes with the others filling in as needed.
• It seems pretty clear we won’t be seeing much of Daquan Cook. The freshman guard originally was going to redshirt, but the Rebels changed their mind. Since then he has appeared in five games, tallying more than two minutes just twice.
Cook, a 6-foot-1 native of Baltimore, has put on some weight since getting to campus, but he’s still undersized for a Division I point guard. That won’t change much the rest of the season, and unless there’s a significant injury to another guard, I don’t think he’ll see more than the mop-up minutes he’s had at the end of games.
• This was the fifth time this year that UNLV had more turnovers than assists. Two of those other occurrences also were on the road — at Portland and at Cal. In the Rebels’ other loss, at home against Oregon, they had exactly 18 in both categories. Really, this only confirms what you already know: UNLV, just like every other team, is better when it has more assists than turnovers.