UNLV isn’t ready to throw in the towel on their Mountain West title dreams just yet.
After losing back-to-back road games to Boise State and Fresno State, the Runnin’ Rebels knocked off No. 15 New Mexico at the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday night, 64-55.
That final score doesn’t actually do UNLV’s dominance justice. Dave Rice’s team jumped out to an early lead and never looked back. They were up 37-23 at the break and the Lobos never mounted a serious threat in the final 20 minutes.
It was precisely the kind of performance that UNLV needed, and it came at a time where Rice did something a little different with his rotation. Mike Moser, the best player on the team a season ago, played all of three minutes. Senior leader Justin Hawkins played just six minutes. It was the fewest minutes that either had played all season long. Hawkins had been in double figures in every game this season. If you take away the five minutes Moser played against Cal before he dislocated his elbow and the nine minutes he played against Air Force before being ejected for a Flagrant 2, the same can be said for him.
“All of my substitutions are situational,” Rice said in his press conference after the game. “On the bench, at halftime and after the game, Mike Moser and Justin Hawkins were as positive as can be, and that’s why we have a chance for success.”
“There’s no doubt that Mike Moser’s been frustrated. I was looking at his numbers the last couple of days and he was averaging close to a double-double before he had the elbow injury.”
But those numbers were put up before Khem Birch became eligible. With Birch back and Anthony Bennett playing like a first-team all-american, there’s no space for Mike Moser in the front court. Could it be that the situational subs that Rice is making involve cutting down how deep his rotation goes?
Perhaps the bigger question is whether or not this performance was more the result of the heavier reliance upon the starting five for minutes or if this was simply a case of a team playing a rival at home in a must-win game. UNLV is notorious for being a different team when they’re playing at the Thomas & Mack Center, and that could very well have played a huge role in Saturday night’s win.
But the speculation all season long has been that the Rebels are actually a better team without their preseason all-american, and this game seems to confirm that line of thinking.
UNLV’s next game is at Air Force on Wednesday. It will be quite interesting to see how Dave Rice’s rotation works itself out.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.