A ceremony honoring Carlos Lopez-Sosa and Kevin Olekaibe will be staged before UNLV’s final regular-season home game, with each player getting a red-carpet entrance and the applause that comes with Senior Night.
It also might be the unofficial finale for several other Rebels, namely juniors Khem Birch, Bryce Dejean-Jones, Jelan Kendrick and Roscoe Smith.
With an eye on another unpredictable offseason, coach Dave Rice said, “There certainly will be guys who have decisions to make.”
The only certainties are that Lopez-Sosa and Olekaibe won’t return next season, but both seniors will be in the starting lineup when UNLV (19-10, 10-6 Mountain West) hosts No. 10 San Diego State (25-3, 14-2) at 8:05 p.m. at the Thomas &Mack Center.
The Aztecs, tied with New Mexico atop the conference standings, can clinch at least a share of the title before they host the Lobos in a Saturday showdown between ranked teams headed for the NCAA Tournament.
“We don’t want them to come on our court and clinch the Mountain West title here,” Olekaibe said after Tuesday’s practice.
A Cimarron-Memorial graduate, Olekaibe’s tour with the Rebels was brief but emotional and meaningful. A three-year starter at Fresno State, he transferred last summer to be close to his ill father.
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” he said. “I grew up here, and it’s going to be a special moment for me and my family. I don’t want to be anywhere else. I’m happy to be here.
“It was kind of a roller coaster ride. It doesn’t matter how you start; it matters how you finish. I’m going to enjoy the moment, but I know I’ve got to focus on the game at hand.”
Olekaibe, a 6-foot-2-inch guard, has started 28 of 29 games, leads the team in 3-pointers made (67) and ranks fourth in scoring at 10.6 points per game. His contributions go far beyond the numbers.
Rice always talks of Olekaibe in glowing terms, speaking of a veteran leader who set a positive example for younger players by approaching each day as a professional.
Lopez-Sosa’s impact was similar, but the 6-11 forward did not get the same chances to produce. He is averaging career lows in minutes per game (7.1) and scoring (1.3) in 25 games as a backup to Birch.
It’s not the fifth year Lopez-Sosa imagined. A native of Puerto Rico and a Findlay Prep product, he was recruited by former coach Lon Kruger and redshirted as a freshman. The potential he seemed to show at the time never developed, and tonight’s game will mark only his second career start.
“I think he’s had a very important role on our team,” Rice said. “Carlos has continued to provide very positive leadership. There’s no doubt that he would like to be playing more minutes, but it has not affected his role on the team as one of our leaders, and I think that speaks volumes about his character.”
Lopez-Sosa earned his degree in December. Dejean-Jones and Kendrick are closing in on opportunities to graduate this summer and might opt to pursue careers in pro basketball, though neither is considered a strong NBA prospect.
“It might be something I think about, but I’m just trying to stay focused on this season,” said Dejean-Jones, who redshirted at UNLV during the 2011-12 season after transferring from Southern California.
Dejean-Jones, the team’s leading scorer this season at 13.7 points per game, has started 54 of his 63 games and scored 742 points for the Rebels. Of the four juniors, he’s the most likely to depart.
Smith is a transfer from Connecticut, where he started for most of two seasons and was on an NCAA championship team as a freshman. He is averaging 11.0 points and 11.0 rebounds, numbers he would be challenged to improve upon next season when UNLV welcomes one of the nation’s top recruiting classes.
Birch is the Rebels’ top candidate to play in the NBA, but there are doubts as to whether the 6-9 forward would even go in the second round of this summer’s draft.
“We’ll sit down as soon as the season is over and have a conversation to help them make the best decision,” Rice said.
Smith has been ruled out of tonight’s game after suffering a concussion in Saturday’s game at Air Force, and his rebounding presence will be missed against a San Diego State team that defeated UNLV 63-52 on Jan. 18.
Rice emphasized the importance of focusing on the Aztecs and avoiding the distractions of Senior Night, which also might be a regular-season send-off for more than one junior.
“I’m not a senior, so it doesn’t really apply to me,” Dejean-Jones said, “but I’m sure all the seniors take it as a very serious night.
“I’m looking to play the game of basketball. The seniors have done a great job here, and it’s a sad night, but we also have to understand that it’s a big game.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter @mattyoumans247.