Behind the scenes, a talented UNLV basketball team was torn apart. Carlos Lopez-Sosa was unhappy and unsure if he wanted to be a part of it anymore. He was falling apart, too.
Angry about a diminished role, Lopez-Sosa expressed frustrations on Twitter and in frequent meetings with coach Dave Rice. When the season ended in March, Lopez-Sosa was noncommittal about returning for a fifth year.
Rice essentially made a recruiting pitch and convinced him to come back.
“We have that communication between us, and that was one of the reasons I stayed here. I trusted him,” Lopez-Sosa said. “There is no better feeling than staying here one more year to finish what I started.”
A 6-foot-11 forward, Lopez-Sosa was not lured by a guarantee that he will start. All he asked for was a chance to earn playing time, something he said he was denied last season.
As the lone senior on a team in need of strong leadership, Lopez-Sosa could be one of the Rebels’ most valuable players, on and off the court.
“Carlos’ biggest role is he’s going to play quality minutes for us,” Rice said after the opening day of practice at the Mendenhall Center. “His leadership on a relatively young team is going to be key to our success.”
UNLV finished 25-10 last season, but fell short of its goals of winning a Mountain West championship and advancing in the NCAA Tournament mostly because the team was fractured by individual agendas.
Some light was shed on those issues over the summer when junior forward Mike Moser transferred to Oregon and freshman guard Katin Reinhardt transferred to Southern California. Anthony Bennett was NBA-bound all along, and the freshman forward wound up being the No. 1 draft pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Lopez-Sosa and last year’s senior trio of Anthony Marshall, Justin Hawkins and Quintrell Thomas did not mesh with some newcomers and the coaching staff.
“There were cliques, there were the old guys and the new guys,” Lopez-Sosa said. “The old guys felt the new guys were given everything. There were situations where you knew who was going to play and who was going to start no matter what.
“Last year, we were saying we were all together, but at the end of the day we weren’t, and you could see that in the games. But we’re past that. I’m telling you, this team is going to surprise a lot of people.”
It will be a team heavily influenced by five juniors - 6-9 center Khem Birch, 6-5 swingman Bryce Dejean-Jones, 6-8 forward Roscoe Smith, 6-6 combo guard Jelan Kendrick and 6-foot point guard DeVille Smith. Those five might form the starting lineup in the Rebels’ regular-season opener against Portland State on Nov. 8 at the Thomas &Mack Center.
The competition for playing time should be fierce. Lopez-Sosa, who averaged career lows of 2.2 points and 8.7 minutes in 28 games as a junior, said everyone sees a shot to contribute. Last season, he felt stuck to the bench even if he performed well in practices.
“I was here working my butt off and it showed in practice. I felt I wasn’t given a fair chance to play or do my best,” he said. “As a player, of course you’re going to be mad. Young people are not always going to be rational about how they think.”
Lopez-Sosa declined the option to graduate and transfer to another Division I school for his senior season of eligibility. He played for the Puerto Rican National Team in July and claims his overall game, especially his shooting, has improved.
Todd Simon, an assistant coach at Findlay Prep during Lopez-Sosa’s three seasons there, has been added to the UNLV staff.
“I consider him my family,” Lopez-Sosa said. “I’m happy that he’s here.”
One difference Lopez-Sosa said he sees this season is in Rice, who had troubles managing the talent on last season’s team.
Birch, an exemplary team player, overslept and missed an 8:30 a.m. weightlifting session Monday. Rice told him not to come to practice.
“To me, he has changed. He has improved in every aspect. He’s more firm in his decisions,” Lopez-Sosa said of Rice. “The last two years were tough on both of us. I’m here to help the coaching staff and make this team better.
“We don’t have NBA first-round picks. This team is working hard. There’s no better feeling than seeing guys work before practice and after practice. Everybody is willing to sacrifice.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.