UNLV basketball:

Rested Rebels looking to even their record Saturday at Southern Utah

UNLV (3-4) is midway through nonconference play with plenty of room for improvement, starting this weekend vs. the Thunderbirds (1-5)


Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV forward Khem Birch reacts after picking up his third foul in the first half of their game against Arizona at the McKale Center in Tucson Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013. Arizona won the game 63-58.

The Rebels are just over halfway through their nonconference schedule, and things have not gone as planned. After seven games UNLV (3-4) is under .500 and down a scholarship player as freshman forward Jamal Aytes on Wednesday decided to transfer.

The best thing the Rebels could do right now is take out their frustrations on someone else, and that’s exactly what they intend to do in Saturday’s road trip to Southern Utah (1-5). The rest of the nonconference slate appears to be much easier and UNLV has certainly had plenty of time to practice for it.

“This is a group that needs more games,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said of his team that’s played only once in December. “We’ve practiced well but we need to see that carry over.”

The last time out the Rebels were in the game and often leading at then-No. 2 Arizona. Then leg cramps sidelined starting point guard Kendall Smith and UNLV scored only five points over the final 10 minutes of a 63-58 loss.

If Smith had played until the end, there’s no way to know what would have happened, but Rice is confident the freshman would have made a difference. Smith started as a shooting guard off the bench, and ever since Deville Smith moved to the bench because of an injury in the third game, it’s been Kendall Smith’s job to provide stability at the position.

“I think it’s close to being settled,” Rice said. “Kendall Smith’s our starting point guard.”

Aytes also watched the end of that Arizona game from the bench. It was the third time the San Diego native didn’t play a single minute. Four days later he was gone.

“I knew he was concerned about his playing time," Rice said, “and more concerned about his playing time in the future.”

Click to enlarge photo

UNLV coach Dave Rice talks to forward Jamal Aytes during their annual preseason Scarlet and Gray scrimmage Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack.

Aytes was a very late commitment. He played travel basketball with Dream Vision after his senior season and signed with UNLV about a week before fall classes started.

Aytes committed five days before the public learned about some of the off-court issues of Savon Goodman, another physical forward who’s no longer with the team. When Aytes signed on, the Rebels had a commitment from class of 2014 forward Dwayne Morgan but didn’t yet have the same from Goodluck Okonoboh.

Aytes scored nearly 40 points against Okonoboh in a game at Rancho High this summer, but it was clear that both Morgan and Okonoboh would be higher in the rotation next season. Add in the likely returns of juniors Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith plus freshman Christian Wood and there didn’t appear to be much room for Aytes, who made it clear to Rice he wasn’t willing to sit and wait for his turn. Aytes is expected to transfer to BYU, one of the main teams pursuing him this summer.

“I think it was more of a numbers game,” Rice said.

The numbers will certainly favor the remaining Rebels on Saturday against the Thunderbird. Southern Utah is the third-worst team in the nation, according to Kenpom.com, and it lost by 15 to UC Riverside in its last home game.

Rice said the keys right now for the Rebels are to control the ball better — they average 14.3 turnovers per game — and for the guards to rebound better. Birch added the team needs to treat every game with respect, “not play Arizona like Arizona and then play UT Martin like UT Martin.”

UNLV ended up whooping UT Martin by 30 but it was tied with about eight minutes left in the first half. Saturday is the type of game the Rebels would have to completely botch in order to lose, but in order to make the remaining nonconference schedule go more smoothly, the team is aiming to get its confidence up with a decisive win.

“We came together too late for a good start,” Birch said, “but it’s still early.”

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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