Heat rises on Rice, Rebels as first-place Lobos roll into town

It is Dave Rice’s personality to remain calm and cool in most situations. This, however, is a different situation.

The pressure to win that surrounds him now is intense. The heat is on Rice, with an angry fan base cranking up the thermostat on the UNLV basketball coach following his team’s loss at Fresno State on Wednesday.

Expected to be no worse than the second-best team in the Mountain West, the Rebels have plummeted to fifth in the standings at the midpoint of the conference schedule. A majority of fans are fed up and frustrated, and Rice is, too.

“I would include our coaches, our players and everyone around our program as being upset at the way the last week went,” Rice said. “It was certainly a rough week for us. We’re going to get this right.”

If that promise is not delivered today, the season could quickly spiral in the wrong direction.

UNLV (17-6, 4-4) hosts league-leading and 15th-ranked New Mexico (20-3, 7-1) at 6 p.m. at the Thomas & Mack Center, where a potential sellout crowd is anticipated. Fewer than 1,000 tickets remained Friday.

The magnitude of the game, at least from the Rebels’ perspective, was captured by sophomore center Khem Birch after Friday’s practice.

“Our whole season is determined by tomorrow,” he said. “This is basically the season. We’re going to come out strong.”

Despite its back-to-back losses at Boise State and Fresno State, UNLV is a 5-point favorite over the Lobos, who won the first meeting 65-60 on Jan. 9 and have since showed improvement under coach Steve Alford’s leadership.

The Rebels have regressed, their debacle at Boise followed by a fiasco at Fresno. UNLV never led the Broncos a week ago and fell behind the Bulldogs, the league’s last-place team, by 16 points in the second half.

“We understand that we need to be a desperate team,” Rice said.

Playing with a sense of desperation is part of the equation. The Rebels looked lackadaisical on defense in their past two games, allowing backdoor layups, having rebounds ripped away by smaller guards and too often getting beat to loose balls.

Team chemistry appears to be lacking, from a lack of communication on defense to a lack of ball movement within an offense that has been out of sync.

“If you look at the last game, you would (say) the chemistry on this team is not getting better,” Birch said. “But I think the chemistry has been better.”

The offense has not been better. UNLV is averaging 63.2 points over its past five games, since what seemed to be a breakthrough 82-75 win at San Diego State on Jan. 16.

Rice has been reluctant to change his defensive philosophy, seldom using full-court pressure and trapping in an effort to speed up games. As a result, opponents are dictating a slow pace.

Freshman forward Anthony Bennett, while NBA-ready as an offensive talent, has been inclined to take off several defensive possessions. He also has 13 turnovers and three assists in the past three games.

Junior forward Mike Moser, sophomore guard Bryce Dejean-Jones and senior guard Justin Hawkins are mired in shooting slumps. Moser is 2-for-10 in the past three games, Dejean-Jones 6-for-19 over the past two and Hawkins 3-for-23 in the past five.

The absence of production by Moser, who is struggling with his confidence and health since suffering a dislocated right elbow Dec. 9, is a significant factor in the Rebels underachieving.

Meanwhile, senior point guard Anthony Marshall — who is not a true point guard — has turned into UNLV’s most reliable player on both ends of the floor for the past month.

When the teams played at Albuquerque last month, New Mexico was aided by a 29-5 advantage in free-throw attempts. Rice indicated the game plan today is for his team to be more aggressive going to the basket, and part of that will be feeding the ball to Bennett and Birch in the post.

“Passing the ball a little bit more, getting it inside and just not relying on 3-point shots,” Birch said, when asked what approach the Rebels need to take offensively.

He added, “Never count this team out.”

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.