It’s difficult for UNLV coach Dave Rice to pinpoint what has bothered his basketball team on its home floor. Still, he might have the answer.
Rice is not a psychologist, but he did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. He checked the team into an unidentified local hotel, at least, to try to simulate the routine of a road game.
The Rebels are 6-5 at the Thomas &Mack Center this season, including 0-2 in Mountain West play, so Rice is searching for solutions.
“I just want to make sure that we don’t have any distractions,” he said. “I think staying in a hotel is going to help us a lot. It’s going to help our focus. Is it going to guarantee a victory? No.”
In Rice’s first two seasons, winning home games seemed routine. But UNLV (11-7, 2-3) is not in a position to guarantee anything as it focuses on hosting Utah State (12-5, 2-3) at 8:05 p.m. today.
In early January, after the Rebels were upset by Air Force and UNR at the Thomas &Mack, Rice decided it was time for a little change. He reflected on his days as a player for former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian, who always put the team in a hotel the night before a home game.
“This is not some dramatic thing that I’m the first guy in the history of coaching who has ever done it,” Rice said. “I thought about doing it before the Reno game. It’s a great thing to play at home, but there are always distractions with family and friends.
“I want to make it very clear to our guys that it’s business. I thought that our focus in home games was not the same as it’s been on the road.”
The Rebels are 5-2 away from home, 3-2 in true road games with losses at No. 1 Arizona and No. 7 San Diego State.
“We are winning away, so we have to act like we’re away,” junior forward Khem Birch said. “It’s kind of strange considering I’ve been here three years and we’ve never struggled at home.”
In Rice’s first season, UNLV went 17-1 at the Thomas &Mack, 16-0 in the regular season. The Rebels finished 18-3 in their home arena last season.
So, after winning 35 of his first 39 games at the Thomas &Mack, where the conference tournament also is staged, Rice is perplexed by the recent depression. And the five home losses this season don’t include an exhibition defeat to Division II Dixie State.
Following a team dinner and game-planning session, the Rebels planned to bus back to campus this morning so players could attend classes.
The Aggies, coached by veteran Stew Morrill, are 0-3 on the Mountain West road, with narrow setbacks at Air Force, UNR and Boise State.
Following a 73-72 loss to the Falcons on Jan. 1, Morrill reinstated 6-foot-10-inch senior center Jarred Shaw, who pleaded guilty to a third-degree felony marijuana possession charge stemming from a mid-December incident.
Shaw, who missed five games during a suspension, is Utah State’s leading scorer at 16.3 points per game.
“I’ve never seen him play,” Birch said. “I’ve heard he’s good.”
Shaw’s presence in the post makes the Aggies more of a threat. He opens up the floor for guards Preston Medlin and Spencer Butterfield, each shooting better than 47 percent from 3-point range.
“Win or lose, we’re going to stay in a hotel the rest of the way,” Rice said. “We’ll do it next year and the year after that.”
As for UNLV’s home woes, Birch said it’s time to “put it behind us.”
But he was unsure which hotel the Rebels were headed to in an effort to avoid distractions and maintain a sense of focus.
“You can’t put us on the Strip,” Birch said with a laugh.
■ NOTES — UNLV has a 27-3 lead in the all-time series with Utah State, but this is the teams’ first meeting since 1996. … The Rebels will be without reserve forward Demetris Morant, who went down with a sprained ankle in Monday’s practice. Freshman guard Kendall Smith also has a sore ankle but is expected to be available.
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.