Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015 | 2 a.m.
The Rebels (7-1) have two top-15 victories in the bag, and now they're heading to their first true road game at Wichita State. Las Vegas Sun sports editor Ray Brewer and reporters Case Keefer and Taylor Bern preview that game while looking at what has gotten UNLV to the fringe of the top 25 rankings.
The National Finals Rodeo is still wrapping up at the Thomas & Mack Center so it’s another road game for the Rebels (7-2), who this afternoon will take on UC Riverside (5-3).
The game tips at 4 p.m. and a link to the online BigWest.TV stream will be available on UNLVRebels.com. It’s the Rebels’ 14th game against the Highlanders and the first since 2010.
Here’s a look at what to expect and some more of the things we learned Wednesday night in Wichita:
1. Back to Back
This is UNLV’s first of four back-to-back true road games this season, and though the environment shouldn’t be too intimidating, the Rebels will have their hands full.
UC Riverside’s SRC Arena seats 2,750 and attendance for the last home game was 603. At least that many Rebel fans could be at this game, and it might end up being a more balanced version of the 2013 trip to Southern Utah’s 5,300-seat arena, where far more UNLV fans made the drive than did the locals.
The biggest difference is that Saturday’s opponent isn’t a pushover like the Thunderbirds were back then. UNLV is a 4-point favorite against the Highlanders, who recently got their best player back after a five-game team suspension.
Senior guard Taylor Johns had 24 points, 17 rebounds, four blocks and four assists in Riverside’s one-point loss to Loyola Marymount on Sunday. He brings much-needed play-making ability to a squad that plays solid defense and protects the ball pretty well, both things that help even what will be a decided athletic advantage for the Rebels.
2. A New Streak?
UNLV’s loss snapped a four-game winning streak, something it hadn’t accomplished since February 2014. Last year the Rebels won three straight on only two separate occasions.
Big winning streaks were a common occurrence in Rice’s first two seasons, when the Rebels won at least five in a row five times. Over the 75 games since then it has happened once.
A streak has to start with one, which is the one the Rebels are focused on. But looking down the road it would seem possible to rattle off several straight victories starting Dec. 22 against Southern Utah and moving into Mountain West play.
Last year’s team never could gather much in the way of positive momentum, and one time they did, Rashad Vaughn’s injury brought it to a halt. This year’s team is off to a solid start and it’s already won more consistently than last year’s group, but now that true road environments are in the mix, it will be interesting to see if that can continue.
3. More Poyser?
If not for Jalen Poyser the Rebels probably wouldn’t have been close at the end of the Wichita State game. Yet the freshman guard from Canada could play less than five minutes against UC Riverside and no one would be too surprised.
Such is life finding a role in college basketball.
Against the Shockers, Poyser provided some desperately needed first-half offense with a pair of 3-pointers that helped turn a 14-point deficit into nine by halftime. He finished the game with eight points in 12 minutes, making all of his 3-point and free throw attempts.
“I tried a few different guys and I thought Jalen really came through and played well at both ends of the floor,” Rice said after the game.
Those points and minutes were both career highs against Division I competition for Poyser, who previously had only reached double-digit minutes against New Mexico Highlands, Chaminade and Prairie View A&M, the Rebels’ three worst opponents. Against UCLA, Indiana and Oregon he played a combined 13 minutes as Rice stuck more with Pat McCaw and Jerome Seagears, who lead the team in minutes at 31.9 and 29.3, respectively.
Rice needed to look elsewhere against Wichita State and Poyser came through. It was the type of performance that could be the first opening of a breakthrough, or Poyser might continue to seesaw minutes based on the opponent.
The answer could lie in the play of another Rebel guard off the bench …
4. Cornish’s Struggles
Sophomore guard Jordan Cornish’s offensive struggles haven’t gotten any better, and for the first time this year against Wichita State, he didn’t play double-digit minutes.
Cornish, who last year led the team in 3-point percentage at 48.7 (38-of-78), is 1-for-22 this season. The lone make was against Prairie View A&M on a night when he went 1-for-5 beyond the arc.
Not only is Cornish’s 3-point stroke off, he’s also dropped from a 79.5 percent free-throw shooter as a freshman (31-of-39) to an 8-of-15 start to the year at the line. For a shooting guard that production is simply unacceptable, and Cornish’s minutes have reflected his struggles.
Over the first five games he averaged 21.4 minutes per game, and since then it’s dropped to an average of 9.7 per game when you throw out the 30 minutes against Prairie View when UNLV was hoping he’d shoot his way out of the funk.
It was obvious Cornish wasn’t going to match his freshman year numbers. The hitch in his jump shot stroke was always concerning, and the sample size wasn’t big enough to make any declarations, but to drop off this far is clearly surprising.
Rice has maintained that Cornish continues to work hard on defense despite his struggles, thus adding value even if he isn’t making shots. But eventually Cornish has to be good enough to at least be a threat on offense, because UNLV has better defensive options and if opponents don’t need to guard him then he hurts more than he helps.
5. Working the Refs
It was interesting to watch one of many games within the game playing out between the Rebels and an officiating crew that was getting bludgeoned by UNLV Twitter throughout the game.
Rice is never shy about sharing his feelings with the refs, which they’re fine with, but they don’t tend to like hearing from assistant coaches. UNLV assistant Ryan Miller shared some choice words during the second half and had a tense-looking showdown with John Higgins before later apologizing.
The more interesting interplay though was between Higgins and Seagears. After one particular play in the first half, Higgins appeared to talk to Seagears about not trying to sell the call by throwing his head so much, a move Seagears and many guards often use to emphasize any contact.
Later in the game, the Shockers’ Fred Van Vleet — perhaps the head-throwingest player in college basketball — extended for what looked like enough of a push off to be called a foul. Seagears exaggerated his backward momentum, and Higgins shook his head no and put his palms up as Seagears looked up for a whistle.
It’s impossible to say for certain, but that’s a call the Rebels might have gotten if not for the over exaggeration that often perturbs officials. Wichita State scored on the play.