Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013 | 12:15 a.m.
Any objective fan in attendance walked away from Tuesday’s game at the Thomas & Mack Center with a big smile on their face. You can dissect the reasons UNLV came up short in an 86-80 loss to Arizona State, and I’ll do that in a moment, but I also wanted to take a second to appreciate the game we saw.
That was fun. We saw ridiculous numbers, more highlight-worthy plays than I can count and the only thing missing was a dramatic lean at the finish line.
UNLV couldn’t quite hold up its end of the bargain in that regard. We already looked at coach Dave Rice’s decision to take his chances with Jahii Carson, who scored 40 points, and limit open 3-point attempts. So let’s look at some of the other reasons UNLV, despite a solid effort, couldn’t pull off the upset.
“We’re not the worst free-throw team in the country.” — Roscoe Smith
While technically true, fifth worst isn’t exactly something to be proud about.
Heading into Tuesday’s game, the Rebels’ 50 percent shooting from the free-throw line was better than only four other teams in the nation. That company includes Eastern Washington, Austin Peay, Stephen F. Austin and Morgan State.
Rice told us after Monday’s practice that most of the Rebels’ practice at the free-throw line came on their own time in the Mendenhall Center. They can go there any time they want and get repetitions in.
Unfortunately, more of that is the only answer anyone really has right now. Rice, smartly, expects that number to climb as several Rebels start shooting closer to their career averages. But it was a huge factor in Tuesday’s loss and if they don’t fix it soon there could be other games lost because of something that looks so simple.
UNLV actually increased its free-throw percentage to 50.5 percent in Tuesday’s game. That’s embarrassingly low and worse yet, the Rebels missed at least two front ends of one-and-one attempts.
They’re leaving so many points out on the floor that it requires them to be perfect in other areas to make up for it. They’re not perfect, and so you get results like this tough loss that could have been a victory.
The Devils’ block party
This is something I plan to keep track of all season: What happens after Khem Birch blocks a shot?
The reigning league defensive player of the year now has 22 blocks over four games. The highlight of those was tonight, when Birch sent Carson’s floater into the third row of the lower bowl. It got the crowd and Birch’s teammates hyped up, but what happened after that?
Arizona State’s Jermaine Marshall made a short bank shot, that’s what. While Birch got a highlight the Sun Devils got points. I plan to keep results on the result of Birch’s blocks throughout the season to see how much it really benefits UNLV.
Tonight the Rebels had neither an advantage or disadvantage on the scoreboard from Birch’s eight blocks. Two of them went out of bounds, one led to an offensive rebound putback and the Rebels grabbed defensive rebounds on five of them.
Obviously it’s not Birch’s fault that the Rebels failed to convert more than one made basket and one made free throw on those five possessions, but it is telling that Arizona State blocked seven shots in the second half. And what happened after those plays? All seven stayed in bounds and were corralled by Sun Devils, who converted them into a nine-point advantage.
Blocks are great and highlight blocks pump up the crowd, but what’s often overlooked is which team really wins that possession.
The Rebels’ starters should probably get used to logging a lot of minutes, because Rice’s history shows he’ll use those guys for a vast majority from the beginning of the season to the end.
Last season, despite acknowledging that it would be best to keep guys fresh for the end of the season, Anthony Marshall played at least 30 minutes in seven of the first eight games. He finished with 33.9 per game. Oscar Bellfield was similar the year before.
In Tuesday’s game, the starters all played at least 28 minutes and three of them — Roscoe Smith (40), Birch (34) and Kevin Olekaibe (35) — logged at least 30. This isn’t entirely unique as the Sun Devils actually had five guys play at least 30 minutes.
What’s more interesting is that Rice only went eight men deep. That included Carlos Lopez-Sosa, who only played five minutes.
The guys who played the most are clearly the guys Rice trusts most right now, but how is anyone else supposed to earn trust throughout the season if they don’t get minutes early in the year? I know this was probably an extreme example and as the schedule lightens up we’ll see more from guys like Jamal Aytes and Daquan Cook, who may have been a little injured Tuesday.
But it’s definitely important to note that the rotation was so short so early in the season.