Every basketball team needs a player resembling Roscoe Smith, a player who chases rebounds, runs the floor with the attack mentality of a junkyard dog and backs up his bark.
“I try to be a defensive force,” UNLV’s junior forward said. “Just hard work.”
Smith has been the nation’s leading rebounder since mid-November for a reason.
When the Rebels (15-7, 6-3 Mountain West) face Colorado State (12-10, 3-6) at 6 p.m. today at Moby Arena, Smith will see an opponent that is his mirror image. The Rams rely on defense, rebounding and toughness to compete with more talented teams.
“They are a blue-collar team. They dive on the floor and they get every loose ball,” Smith said. “We’re going to battle with them. We’ve got to have a tougher type of mentality. We’ve got to make sure that we hit first.”
UNLV saved its best punch for last in a 73-69 comeback victory over Boise State on Saturday, overcoming an 11-point deficit with 3½ minutes to go.
“That was just crazy,” said junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, still in amazement after Tuesday’s practice. “I just couldn’t believe it.”
When the team’s flight landed in Denver, a one-hour drive from the Colorado State campus in Fort Collins, a cold reality hit. It was 5 degrees, and it was time to forget the warm feelings from the Rebels’ four-game win streak.
“We’ve got to move on,” Smith said. “Win or lose, we can’t dwell on the last game. If we continue to celebrate about (beating) Boise State, Colorado State is going to sneak up on us.”
When Smith talks, his teammates listen — and he basically never stops talking.
“He fires us up,” Dejean-Jones said. “That’s Roscoe. You expect him to be intense all the time.”
But Smith is off his quietest game of the season, an eight-point, two-rebound performance against the Broncos. In the first 21 games, he grabbed double-digit rebounds 16 times and never had fewer than six.
The 6-foot-8-inch Smith is averaging 11.8 points and 11.8 rebounds, still ranking him No. 1 nationally, barely ahead of San Diego State’s Josh Davis at 11.6 rebounds.
“Roscoe does everything, getting loose balls and rebounds, scoring and defending in the low post,” Dejean-Jones said. “He’s meant a lot. He’s a big part of what we do.”
Still, coach Dave Rice opted to sit Smith during critical stretches in games against New Mexico and Boise State, partly because Rice wanted a better defender on the floor. Rice needed a smaller, quicker defender on Saturday, when the Broncos went with a guard-dominated lineup featuring four perimeter shooters.
Smith played 22 minutes against Boise State, his fewest minutes in nine conference games.
“His rebounding and his energy are so important that we’ve got to figure out ways to keep him on the floor when teams do go small,” said Rice, who also is looking for ways to conserve Smith’s energy.
“Roscoe plays so hard that I do try to keep his minutes down a little bit. He’s logged a lot of minutes this season, and nobody in the country plays harder than he does, so I want him fresh for the second half of conference. I’m concerned. We need him to be strong to make a significant run.”
Rice said he feels more comfortable resting Smith on occasion because of his confidence in Chris Wood, a reserve freshman forward.
Smith is averaging 29.8 minutes, second on the team to junior forward Khem Birch (30.6), for the season. In league games, Smith’s averages are down in minutes (28.6), scoring (9.9) and rebounding (9.9).
On Saturday, Smith played a supporting role to Birch, who had 15 points, 15 rebounds and six blocked shots in 34 minutes.
“I’m a competitive type of guy, but I’m not a selfish guy at all,” Smith said of a decrease in playing time. “I trust in my coaches, and I trust in their judgment. I don’t question anything. I do what’s best for the team.
“I was one of the first guys off the bench cheering and jumping up and down. The whole goal in mind is trying to win. We’re a team.”
■ NOTES — Rice said junior guard Jelan Kendrick has been bothered by an illness for the past week but is available to play today. ... The status of Rams junior guard Daniel Bejarano, the team’s No. 2 scorer, is questionable after he got into a heated exchange with coach Larry Eustachy and was benched during a loss at San Diego State on Saturday. Bejarano has practiced this week and is expected to play.
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.