In times of struggle, leadership is critical.
When at a crossroads of uncertainty, a commanding figure can help point others in the best direction to discover success.
Roscoe Smith can play that sort of role for UNLV’s basketball team.
He might be the only one.
The Rebels need guidance like nobody’s business, and not the sort a head coach or his assistants might normally provide. UNLV is at a stage in a season where the most important voice in a locker room and on a court could be that of a teammate, willing to praise those who extend maximum effort and call out those who don’t.
It’s that important for someone to step up for the Rebels today.
Smith is a junior forward who leads the nation in rebounding and now needs to lead the Rebels in holding others accountable. He began such a process Wednesday night, when after a 74-71 loss to UNR at the Thomas &Mack Center, Smith more than hinted not everyone had played with the amount of labor needed to win at this level.
And, if spoken publicly in a diplomatic but candid way, there’s nothing wrong with that.
The Rebels have lost two straight at home and five times this season at the Thomas &Mack, not the sort of results that usually propel a team to contention within a conference, be it the Mountain West or elsewhere.
They now face a two-game trip against New Mexico on Wednesday and San Diego State on Jan. 18, one team picked as the league’s best in October and another that has proven to be its best since November, a defending conference champion one night and the team most believe will capture a title this season another.
It’s a huge week for UNLV.
The sky is also blue.
Dave Rice and his assistants have some things to figure out. Theirs is a team that hasn’t beaten anyone of note, but that at times has exhibited the level of play that can not only compete against the Mountain West’s best teams but also beat them. The Rebels have offered the sort of stretches to make you believe they can have a major say in who wins the league.
Then they lose home games to Air Force and UNR and look as confused and average as a Ratings Percentage Index number of 137 suggests.
But while Rice and his staff try to determine why they often seem to be missing an X where there should be an O and vice versa, Smith has every chance to define the on-court identity UNLV desperately needs to create.
Do you know what best describes 13th-ranked San Diego State? Swagger. The Aztecs have for years now owned an ocean’s worth of it, often with not as much talent as other teams in the Mountain West but always with more mental toughness.
San Diego State players believe they can beat New Mexico and UNLV and Kansas and Syracuse and Arizona and the Miami Heat ... all in the same night.
Truly, utterly, unquestionably believe it. They always straddle the line between incredibly confident and incorrigibly cocky. And it works. It fits them. UNLV needs a little of that attitude.
Smith started as a freshman on Connecticut’s national championship team in 2011, even tying his career-high for blocks (four) in the title game against Butler. He’s a confident kid. Has some swagger to him. He is far from a perfect player and yet competes every second of every minute. Busts his tail.
UNLV isn’t a mentally tough team. Hasn’t been for some time. Not to the level that wins deep into March.
It would seem Smith at least owns a chance of helping change that.
“Some people are just not passionate people,” he said after the loss to UNR. “Some are more laid back. I just feel our effort level isn’t being matched by some guys. It’s going to take each guy. We need everyone. ... It’s a long process. We’re going to get better. We have a week off to get ready for two very tough road games.
“When you’re away from home, it’s just the team. It’s not like at home, where some guys might do things out of character that could sabotage the team because there are friends and family in the stands. On the road, we don’t seem to play as individuals as much. Some guys, they just check out (mentally), they’re just not into it on a (particular) day. I don’t know why. No finger pointing. We just all need to do better.”
It’s OK he said it. Welcomed, even.
You can call others out as a team leader in a respectful manner and yet still make a point.
The losses to Air Force and UNR were hardly the finest hour for Rice and his staff. The fact a junior (Jelan Kendrick) averaging almost 23 minutes was benched Wednesday for being significantly late to practice and that rules against players using Twitter immediately after games are being blatantly ignored by some suggests UNLV is at more than just a crossroads of a season.
Someone needs to close a locker-room door and throw a chair or two and get in people’s faces and hash some things out.
It can’t be Rice, because I’m not sure anyone would buy it.
But they might if Roscoe Smith did.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.