With one of the nation’s best recruiting classes on the way and a senior point guard who could be the “missing piece” for a program that lacked consistency at the position in 2013-14, UNLV is a program that will have high expectations in 2014-15. But even with that talent there’s a need for a defensive anchor, and the Runnin’ Rebels will need to find one as junior forward Khem Birch announced his decision to turn pro on Thursday.
Birch, who averaged 11.5 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.8 blocked shots per game last season, was named Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. Draft Express ranks Birch 61st on its list of the Top 100 draft prospects. He’s now the second UNLV player to make the decision to turn pro this offseason, with Roscoe Smith being the other, and that will impact Dave Rice’s team especially on the defensive end.
UNLV ranked third in the Mountain West in field goal percentage defense and second in three-point percentage defensive in 2013-14, and with Birch and Smith gone other front court players will need to step up.
Christian Wood, the lone returning member of the front court rotation, will be asked to be a leader for this group with freshmen Demetris Morant (redshirted in 2013-14) and Goodluck Okonoboh also being key figures. Oregon transfer Ben Carter will be able to help out in practice but that’s it, as he’ll have to sit per NCAA transfer rules.
UNLV will have athleticism in the front court next season but they won’t have much in the way of experience. The question now is whether or not that will keep the Runnin’ Rebels from getting back to the NCAA tournament after missing out in 2013-14.
Towards the end of the 2014 season, UNLV’s Jelan Kendrick, the Memphis transfer via junior college, began to earn more minutes during Runnin’ Rebels games. In a loss to Nevada, Kendrick played 33 minutes and scored 16 points, and in another loss (to San Diego State) two games later, Kendrick again used more than 30 minutes. The pedestal was set for a breakout senior season, one where Kendrick would likely receive more playing time due to transfers and players declaring for the NBA draft, but Kendrick may not be on the UNLV roster in 2015: the wing is set to graduate by summer’s end and is deciding whether to use his fifth season at the MWC program.
Coach Dave Rice has already lost Bryce Dejean-Jones (to transfer) and Roscoe Smith (to the NBA draft), and there is a chance that, along with Kendrick, Khem Birch might take his game beyond Las Vegas’ city limits in 2014-15.
The UNLV coaching staff is assuredly not done on the recruiting trail — there have been reports that Ryan Miller, replete with ties to the California recruiting scene, has been offered a spot on the UNLV staff — and even if Kendrick and Birch return, there could be a few new bodies who’ll join the team in the coming weeks.
After two inconsistent years spent at Connecticut, Roscoe Smith decided to transfer following his sophomore year, trekking to UNLV to continue his college career. Smith was eligible this past season, and after cementing a reputation as one of the nation’s best rebounders, Smith decided to leave Las Vegas and declare for the NBA draft.
Smith’s offense will need work at the next level, but as a forward who has shown dedication to grabbing each and every rebound that comes his way, Smith could be a valuable commodity. Smith’s offensive and defensive rebounding percentages both ranked with Ken Pomeroy’s top 60, and the junior was simply relentless on the glass. Teams will notice that skill and hustle, and while he continues to improve and develop his offense — his perimeter game is notably lacking, attempting just ten three-pointers last season — he could earn minutes (provided he makes a squad) because of his rebounding ability.
Even without Smith, coach Dave Rice isn’t lacking for frontcourt depth. It isn’t clear whether Khem Birch will return for the 2014-15 season, but Christian Wood will be joined by Dwayne Morgan and Goodluck Okonoboh in the paint, so the departure of Smith will actually open up some sorely needed minutes next fall.
Picked to finish in a tie for second place in the preseason Mountain West coaches poll, Dave Rice’s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels were clearly expected to contend for a conference title. While there certainly were some adjustments to be made given the number of newcomers inheriting key roles, there’s enough talent to make UNLV a factor in the Mountain West and at the very least earn another trip to the NCAA tournament.
In the aftermath of UNLV’s disappointing performance in a 74-71 home loss to Nevada on Wednesday night, with the final margin being that close thanks in large part to the Wolf Pack’s struggles to put the game away, it seems pretty clear that UNLV is a team in search of answers. And they don’t look all that equipped to provide the answers needed to turn things around, which is highly concerning with road games against New Mexico (January 15) and No. 13 San Diego State (January 18) next on the schedule.
And for a team that up until the last week proved to be solid defensively, those home losses to Air Force and Nevada are especially concerning in that regard.
After allowing the Falcons to score 1.16 points per possession on Saturday the Runnin’ Rebels weren’t much better against their in-state rivals, with Nevada scoring an average of 1.10 points per possession. Nevada was able to do that despite shooting just 6-for-19 from beyond the arc, with the guard tandem of Deonte Burton (29 points, five rebounds and three assists) and Michael Perez (18 points, seven rebounds and three assists) doing just about whatever they wanted offensively.
Nevada made 52.3% of its shots inside of the arc, as they were able to find ways to attack UNLV’s defense off the dribble on many occasions (and a few backdoor cuts from Perez for good measure) with little resistance to be found. Burton sat a portion of the first half due to foul trouble, but once he was able to get rolling in the latter stages of the half UNLV had no chance of slowing him down.
The reasons for the loss are many and will be discussed ad nauseam by the fans who, like the team, have a week to stew on this two-game losing streak before back-to-back trips to New Mexico and San Diego State starting Wednesday. There may be no better place to start than how excited Burton was to see Kendall Smith guarding him to start the game.
“I was surprised about it,” Burton said. “We just have to exploit the mismatches, and that’s what we did.”
Asked if he was pleasantly surprised, Burton grinned.
But to limit UNLV’s issues to the defensive end of the floor would be a mistake, especially when considering the fact that they shot just 35% from the field. UNLV got the ball inside but they couldn’t convert at a decent rate, with Khem Birch (3-for-10 FG), Bryce Dejean-Jones (4-for-14) and Kendall Smith (3-for-11) all struggling to knock down shots. Add in Jelan Kendrick’s benching due to his being late to a practice and the problems were plentiful for UNLV.
Now comes the most important six days in the season for the Runnin’ Rebels, and they won’t play a single game during this stretch. For a team that lacked focus, and Birch even noted that players are “emotionally and physically tired” according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, it’s imperative that Rice’s squad uses this time off to get on the same page.
UNLV may be playing better basketball away from Thomas & Mack this season (five of their six losses have come at home), but if they don’t find a way to right the ship those games at The Pit and Viejas Arena will get ugly.
Over the course of the holiday week, we at College Basketball Talk will be detailing what we believe will be the New Year’s Resolutions of some of the nation’s most talented, most disappointing, and thoroughly enigmatic teams. What can we say, we’re in a giving mood.
WHAT DOES UNLV PROMISE TO DO MORE OF?: Play efficiently on the offensive end.
Why it will happen:
Outside of their 19-turnover performance against Mississippi State, UNLV has done a good job of taking care of the basketball during their current five-game win streak. Dave Rice’s team has averaged at least 1.09 points/possession during the streak, and with four players averaging double figures (and a fifth, Jelan Kendrick, averaging 8.2 ppg) the Runnin’ Rebels have the talent to be a productive offensive team. Roscoe Smith, who’s also the nation’s leading rebounder, leads the way with an average of 12.8 points per game. Four players are currently averaging at least two assists per game, with Bryce Dejean-Jones leading the team with 3.2 apg.
Why it won’t happen:
Well in looking at that five-game streak you also have to address the level of competition, with Santa Clara and Mississippi State being the best teams UNLV has faced. In their losses UNLV averaged one point per possession just once, and that was their home loss to Arizona State. Against UCSB (0.97), Illinois (0.89) and Arizona (0.88) the Runnin’ Rebels scored less than one point per possession, although that close defeat at Arizona may have been a game in which the proverbial lightbulb went on for this group.
WHAT DOES UNLV SWEAR THEY WILL DO LESS OF?: Miss free throws.
Why it will happen:
Interestingly enough junior forward Khem Birch has been UNLV’s best foul shooter amongst the regulars, knocking down 77.9% of his attempts on the season. But overall UNLV ranks 316th nationally in free throw percentage, and in the close games they’re likely to play in the Mountain West that could be the difference between winning a conference title and merely contending. They’ve got players capable of shooting a solid percentage from the charity stripe, which should lead to improvement in this area as the season wears on.
Why it won’t happen:
The two perimeter players with the highest number of attempts, Dejean-Jones (34 attempts) and Kendrick (30), are shooting just 61.8% and 53.3% from the foul line respectively. And amongst the guards in Dave Rice’s rotation Kevin Olekaibe’s been the best foul shooter, and he’s shooting just 63.6% from the charity stripe. When your guards have issues at the foul line it’s tough to make the strides needed when it comes to the team’s percentage, especially when considering how much they’ll be asked to handle the ball in late-game situations.
In two seasons at UConn, forward Roscoe Smith was a contributor on two NCAA tournament teams, with his freshman season featuring improbable runs to the Big East and NCAA tournament titles with guard Kemba Walker leading the way. After averaging 6.3 points and 5.2 rebounds per game as a freshman and tallying 4.4 points and 3.4 rebounds per contest as a sophomore, Smith made the decision to transfer with the hope of enjoying a greater role on the floor.
Smith would wind up at UNLV, and after sitting out last season few people expected him to be as productive as he’s been through 11 games. The Baltimore native’s averaging 12.8 points and 13.2 rebounds per game, with the latter also being the nation’s best by nearly a full rebound per game. While the greater number of opportunities that have come in Dave Rice’s system can be cited as a reason for the jump, there’s also the fact that Smith made good use of his season away from game action.
And while there were physical strides to be made, Smith used the time in which he could only practice with his teammates to become a better player mentally as well.
“In my year off I really just focused on my game mentally,” Smith told NBC Sports following the Runnin’ Rebels’ 82-50 win over Sacred Heart on Friday night. “Nothing too specific physically, I just really worked from a mental standpoint because sitting out is extremely hard.
“Playing college basketball nonstop for two years at UConn and then sitting out,” continued Smith. “It was definitely hard, so I really had to come in and be mentally strong and be a leader for the young guys who were on the team as well.”
Last season Smith had the chance to compete against players such as Anthony Bennett, Mike Moser and Khem Birch, testing them as a member of the scout team while also honing his craft with an eye towards the 2013-14 campaign. And the results have been remarkable, as a player who tallied just one double-double and three double-digit rebounding performances in his entire UConn career has seven double-doubles this season. He’s been aggressive on both ends of the floor, especially when it comes to attacking the boards.
“I think that his experience is huge for us,” Rice said of Smith following Friday’s win. “He thinks that every loose ball is his, and it just seems as if he gets a double-double every night. To have a guy like that is big.”
One question that was asked when Smith made the decision to leave UConn was what position does he play. Was he best utilized as a three or a four? At which position did he hope to be utilized? At UNLV it can be argued that he’s played the four primarily, forming a talented and productive partnership with another Big East (at the time) transfer in Khem Birch. But Smith doesn’t exactly subscribe to the rigid positions that many have grown accustomed to in basketball.
“I’m a basketball player,” Smith said with a smile when asked about his position. “I do anything the team needs in order to win. Whatever coach needs me to do I’ll do. I don’t go home every day wondering what position I am because that doesn’t define me. I’m just trying to do whatever it takes to win basketball games.”
Now 7-4 on the season entering Monday night’s game against Mississippi State, the majority of UNLV’s issues have been on the offensive end of the floor. And given the number of newcomers looking to establish their roles that’s to be expected, even with the amount of talent that the Runnin’ Rebels possess. Defense hasn’t been an issue however, and UNLV has its two transfers to thank for this. UNLV currently ranks sixth nationally in effective defensive field goal percentage, and they’re tops in defensive free throw rate.
They may not turn teams over, but with Smith and Birch leading the way the Runnin’ Rebels have made life difficult for teams in the half court. And those two have a competition of sorts when it comes to rebounding, and it’s one that has benefitted both players to this point in the season.
“It’s always a good thing when you have a guy who wants to out-rebound you every night,” Birch said of Smith. “Usually guys don’t want to go after every rebound, but playing with Roscoe is a blessing because he wants to get every rebound.”
UNLV didn’t get off to the start that many expected when the season began, but the way in which they’ve overwhelmed opponents they should beat convincingly is a positive sign for this group moving forward. And for that they’ve got Smith to thank, as he’s been a valuable commodity for UNLV both physically and mentally. With the start of Mountain West play right around the corner, his championship experience will be something the team can draw from as it looks to make a run at a conference title especially when it comes to the development of a young player like Christian Wood.
“I just tell Christian that it’s a process,” said Smith. “You have to take things one day at a time. I know he wants to run before he walks, so I just tell him to slow down a little bit and let the game come to him.”
With the improved production and leadership abilities Smith has found a concrete role in the desert, even if we can’t affix a specific label to him in regards to the position he plays. And whether he’s a three or a four, Roscoe Smith’s been an integral player for UNLV and that will continue to be the case as the season wears on.