Rick Bowmer / AP
Friday, Nov. 27, 2015 | 2 a.m.
It’s impossible to know how good UNLV’s victory against No. 13 Indiana will look in March, but it looked and felt like a big one Wednesday, and there’s no doubt the Rebels needed it to avoid an uncomfortable flight home from the Maui Jim Maui Invitational.
The worst-case scenario for any coach in the field, particularly one in as precarious a position as UNLV’s Dave Rice, is to leave only with a victory against the host school, Division II Chaminade. And while the Rebels (5-1) were only a few plays away from beating UCLA in their opening game, another close loss would have added to whatever pressure Rice was referring to after the Chaminade victory when he talked about trying to make the game fun for his players.
They had plenty of that against the Hoosiers, running, dunking and blocking their way to a victory in which they never trailed. The atmosphere made you forget it was a fifth-place game, and now the Rebels continue what should be the most difficult month of their schedule with a key win secured.
It raised Rice's record against top-25 teams to 9-10 in his time at UNLV, including 6-8 against those in the top 15. UNLV will face another one of those at No. 11 Arizona on Dec. 19, but before that there's Oregon at the MGM Grand Garden Arena plus trips to No. 20 Wichita State and UC Riverside and Arizona State at home.
How many of those games will join Indiana in the quality win column? That depends in part on how well they’re able to continue or improve a few things, starting with …
Look, it’s bad right now, and a few more makes could have been the difference against the Bruins. But do you know how far back you have to go to see the team go through similar early-season struggles at the line? Last year, and it didn’t last.
In their three tournament games out here, the Rebels made only 55.6 percent (40-72) at the line and for the year they’re hitting 60.9 percent. In 13 nonconference games last season, UNLV converted 61.6 percent (180-292) before shooting at a 70.8 percent clip (218-308) the rest of the way.
Of the seven nonfreshmen in the current rotation, only sophomore forward Goodluck Okonoboh was below a 70 percent free-throw shooter. Here are the figures entering the season:
Ben Carter: 80.5 percent (62-77)
Jordan Cornish: 79.5 (31-39)
Jerome Seagears: 75.5 (72-153)
Ike Nwamu: 73.9 (195-264)
Pat McCaw: 71.4 (40-56)
Dwayne Morgan:71.2 (37-52)
Okonoboh: 33.8 (26-77)
As frustrating as the clanks have been, particularly in late-game situations, I’d advise you to take a deep breath and trust that a progression to the mean is coming. Now the thing to really focus on is …
This has been a consistent issue for UNLV through the years, though that’s hardly unique to Rice and his staff. Lots of teams struggle against zone defenses, particularly if they don’t have a smart high-post player, good outside shooters or both.
Against UCLA’s 3-2 zone the Rebels looked awful, going on a long drought with the ball rarely getting anywhere near the paint. Two days later Indiana went zone and UNLV sliced it to pieces, quickly forcing the Hoosiers out of it. That’s what UNLV is going to have to do often this season, because every team on its schedule should at least try to zone the Rebels.
“All next week it will be zone offense; that will be the primary focus of what we do,” Rice said. “Because we're pretty good, as you see, in man-to-man offense. We can play inside out, and we have a lot of guys that can dribble-penetrate the ball.
“We're going to see a lot of zone this year, so that's our job as coaches to put us in spots and play inside-out against zone.”
It hasn’t helped that UNLV’s top-percentage 3-point shooter last season, Cornish at 48.7, has started the year 0-for-14 beyond the arc. But like Rice said, it’s far more important for the Rebels to improve on consistently getting inside a zone rather than just trying to shoot over it.
The Rebels’ best player at doing both of those things (and just about everything else, too) is only getting better, and his continued emergence could be the most important thing from this trip for UNLV going forward. …
McCaw is who we thought he was. After coming in as an unheralded recruit last season the sophomore guard emerged as UNLV’s best overall player, and that’s still the case as he has taken his game to another level.
Over the past four games, McCaw has averaged 23.3 points and 3.3 steals with 4 assists to 0.8 turnover per game, all with an effective field-goal percentage (58.2) this year that on the team trails only dunk machine Derrick Jones Jr. McCaw was named to the all-tournament team after leading the team in scoring two of the three games here.
At this point, anybody who doesn’t know about McCaw isn’t paying attention. For folks who were early on the McCaw bandwagon, this feels like when your favorite indie band breaks through to the mainstream.
Or, given that McCaw is from St. Louis, perhaps the better analogy is the top St. Lunatic himself, Nelly, although I don’t recall seeing McCaw wear a Band-Aid* on his face.
*They do share an affinity for headbands — something those who follow me know I pay way too much attention to — though McCaw hasn't worn one since the first half of the season opener against Cal Poly. Near the end of last season, Nike reps contacted UNLV and told them the players weren't allowed to wear the logo upside down anymore, per the team's contract. McCaw tried it right side up for a half and got off to a rough start (for him) with three turnovers in 15 minutes. Since then he hasn't worn one, and he's averaging one turnover per 32 minutes.
McCaw’s freshman year was like Nelly’s debut, “Country Grammar," because anyone who followed along could recognize its greatness. But Nelly’s sophomore effort, “Nellyville,” debuted at No. 1 on the charts thanks largely to “Hot in Herre” and sent him into another stratosphere.
McCaw could be on a similar track, and UNLV fans will always be able to say they saw it in him before the entire country caught on and got so hot they had to take their clothes off.