Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015 | 10:45 p.m.
A one-point loss at Colorado State is no shame, except when it comes on the heals of an already middling Mountain West slate. Las Vegas Sun sports writers Ray Brewer and Taylor Bern get into UNLV's latest setback and the perception of the team at 13-10.
Practice might not make perfect, but according to UNLV coach Dave Rice it’s been a big part of what has made Christian Wood into a more motivated menace in recent weeks.
Wood’s always been long on ability but questions about effort or decision-making have followed him through a season filled with eye-popping stats whether he’s been dialed in or not. There seems to be a difference lately, though, punctuated by his 27-point, 19-rebound and 7-block performance in UNLV’s 73-61 victory against Fresno State at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“One of the biggest things is he’s practicing more consistently,” Rice said. “… That’s a sign of maturity.”
On Monday, Rice said, the team was struggling through practice in the wake of Saturday’s loss at Colorado State until Wood picked up his own energy and the team followed. Tonight, Wood missed four of his first six shots but he was attacking from the start and playing well defensively.
“I feel like I’m leading the guys better in practice,” Wood said.
Part of Wood’s problem, Rice said, was that he was having a much harder problem dealing with defenses as they keyed more on him after Wood’s huge game against Arizona. Teams made it harder to catch the ball on the block or the elbow, and Wood responded by drifting even more outside.
Against Fresno State (11-13, 6-5), which doesn’t start anyone bigger than 6-foot-7, Wood knew he would have an advantage all night. Exploiting that was UNLV’s best option and it worked over and over as Wood compiled his fourth straight double-double and 14th of the season.
“I knew I had to come out there and grab rebounds,” said Wood, who’s now averaging 15.7 points and 10.2 rebounds per game in league play. “I had to rebound, be aggressive and stay in the post. I tend to get outside a little bit but I think I did a good job staying inside.”
The Rebels (14-10, 5-6) set up Wood on the left block and consistently got results. A lot of it was in drawing fouls (he went 11-for-17), and fouls were so common it felt like the whistles would never stop.
UNLV’s free throw attempts (32) and Fresno State’s total fouls (26) were both single-game highs for the respective teams, and combined there were 37 fouls called and 57 free throws attempted. It slowed down an already ugly game that featured seven total points scored in the first seven minutes before the pace and execution picked up a bit.
Rice recognized the whistles would be tight early on, which gave him all the more reason to feed Wood, who’s the team’s second-best free throw shooter.
“Chris Wood is getting a lot of respect in terms of what he’s doing,” Rice said, referring to the refs. “When the game is called like that and we can establish him in the low post, he was very tough to stop.”
UNLV freshman Rashad Vaughn had a blistering first half before settling in with 18 points, five rebounds and some nice defense while senior Cody Doolin and freshman Pat McCaw combined for 13 points and nine assists to one turnover on a night when neither shot the ball very well.
Before the game, both teams honored UNLV legend Jerry Tarkanian, who’s currently in intensive care. After leaving the Rebels, Tarkanian coached seven seasons at Fresno State.
“Obviously you know what he means to the Runnin’ Rebel community,” Rice said of his former coach.
While many of the Rebels’ thoughts were with the man whose name adorns their home court, the team was also trying to shake off another close loss over the weekend before going back on the road Saturday at Air Force. There’s no shame losing at Colorado State, where only one road team has walked away victorious this season, but for a team with a pile of last-minute games already in the loss column and a four-game losing streak at Moby Arena, it stings a little more.
Whatever people in and around the program have said about his effort, everyone has always agreed Wood has the highest ceiling of anyone on the team. Sometimes it seems like he just stumbles into double-doubles, but not this one.
His limbs were everywhere in the lane on defense. And offensively, when Wood got post touches, he took his time, waited for cutters and, as Doolin said, went to work. The matchup isn’t always this advantageous, but a motivated Wood can do most whatever he wants, including setting up teammates, in the Mountain West.
“He’s going to be trouble for everybody trying to play him,” Doolin said.