It’s debatable who UNLV’s most valuable player is, but junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones is definitely in the discussion.
A month ago, when he was benched, the Rebels were not a part of a serious discussion about teams in contention to win the Mountain West regular-season title. A few things have changed.
UNLV has won seven straight games, all by double-digit margins, and Dejean-Jones is producing at a higher level. As a result, a conference championship is not out of the question.
“It’s not just talk at all,” Dejean-Jones said. “That’s our goal.”
The Rebels (10-4, 1-0) look to take their second step in that direction when they host Air Force (7-5, 1-0) at 7 p.m. today at the Thomas &Mack Center. The rebuilding Falcons opened league play at home with a 73-72 upset of Utah State.
Also on New Year’s Day, UNLV hit the road and handled Fresno State 75-62 behind a career-high 24 points from Dejean-Jones, who is answering a request to be a stronger team leader.
“He took the challenge,” coach Dave Rice said. “Bryce has played his best basketball of the season. He’s a huge key for us.”
In a loss at Arizona on Dec. 7, Rice held Dejean-Jones out of the starting lineup for being late to a team meeting. A week later, when the Rebels started their win streak, Rice benched Dejean-Jones again.
Rice said he hoped to coax Dejean-Jones into being more accountable and a greater positive influence on the team.
“It’s a matter of being a team leader. It’s expected of me,” Dejean-Jones said. “He wants me to be an all-around leader on both ends of the court. I’m trying to be more vocal and lead by example by playing with high intensity and not taking any plays off.”
Junior forwards Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch have been UNLV’s most consistent performers for two months, and Smith is easily the most vocal presence on the team. But Dejean-Jones is emerging in several areas.
“It started on the defensive end and with his rebounding,” Rice said.
In the Rebels’ past two games, Dejean-Jones averaged 21.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists. Instead of settling for contested jump shots, he frequently drove to the rim and went to the free-throw line 27 times.
He also ran the offense on occasion against Fresno State to pick up the slack with point guards Kendall Smith and Deville Smith struggling.
“Bryce is our most experienced perimeter player, and he understands what we’re trying to do,” Rice said. “When he’s locked in, he makes us a very good team.
“He’s a guy who can create his own shot, and he has the ability to be one of the best perimeter defenders in the league.”
Dejean-Jones hit a shot to help UNLV avoid a home loss to Air Force last season. His 18-foot baseline jumper with 12.8 seconds remaining in overtime put the Rebels ahead in a 76-71 victory. He scored 10 of his 18 points in OT.
Rice called the Falcons a “scary” opponent because they operate an up-tempo Princeton offense with backdoor cuts while spreading the floor with multiple 3-point shooters. Air Force also uses a zone defense that typically causes UNLV’s attack to bog down.
But the Rebels, who won their past seven games by an average of 20.2 points, are expected to keep rolling as double-digit favorites over the Falcons.
Dejean-Jones, bothered by a hamstring injury throughout November, has taken over as the team’s leading scorer at 13.4 points per game.
“We’re playing with a lot of confidence, but we’re not looking past anybody,” he said. “Even though we had a tough stretch in the beginning, I think team chemistry has been great the whole time.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.