FRESNO, Calif. - Early in the game, a player wearing No. 43 will check in for UNLV. He will resemble the Mike Moser who led the team in scoring and rebounding last season, the Moser who was ranked one of the top 10 players in college basketball before this season.
His facial features are the same. The only noticeable difference will be a padded sleeve covering most of his right arm.
And then, after a few trips up and down the court, he might look nothing like the player he was last season. Or the player he was in late November.
Even Moser has no idea what he will resemble when the Rebels (17-5, 4-3 Mountain West) face Fresno State (7-13, 1-6) at 6 p.m. today at the Save Mart Center.
"These are the challenges that you face in a season," the 6-foot-8-inch junior forward said. "Sometimes you've just got to change your mindset. It's tough."
This was supposed to be Moser's final season at UNLV before he rode off into the sunset and entered the NBA Draft. But there have been some dark days, and his mindset and plans might be changing. It's tough to know which way he might go.
Moser's course changed in Berkeley, Calif., on Dec. 9, when he crashed to the court and suffered a dislocated right elbow. He rehabilitated at a furious pace but played in only two games - barely contributing in losses at North Carolina and New Mexico - over the next month.
In the Rebels' 76-71 overtime victory over Air Force on Jan. 12, he recaptured what had been missing, compiling 14 points and 11 rebounds in 40 minutes. A week later, in a loss at Colorado State, the elbow injury was aggravated, and he's no longer the same player.
"It was a major setback," Moser said. "I'm just going to be patient with it. But it's definitely tough to be patient with it. Getting surgery is out of the question for me. I want to play, and I want to help this team."
He scored three points in each of UNLV's past two games and will come off the bench for the third consecutive game today. The Moser who averaged 14.0 points and 10.5 rebounds last season, the player who had 16 points and 18 rebounds in an upset of top-ranked North Carolina in November 2011, said he now accepts it's better for the team if he comes off the bench.
"He's such a competitor, and he wants to play as much as he possibly can," coach Dave Rice said. "He's just not quite back to being Mike Moser yet."
It might not happen anytime this month or in March, either, mostly because of effects of the elbow injury. Rice said Dave Tomchek, the team's athletic trainer, told him "the recovery to full strength is probably about six months."
Moser, averaging 7.9 points, 6.5 rebounds and shooting 38.2 percent from the field in 15 games, is not putting together the type of season that will get his name called in the NBA Draft in June, as he planned.
"I didn't come back for anything having to do with the NBA. I could have done that last year," Moser said. "I came back to try and win something here."
In the Rebels' 77-72 loss at Boise State on Saturday, Moser was ejected in the first half for a flagrant foul, adding to his list of woes. The conference schedule hits the halfway point today, with the Rebels tied for fourth and out of position to win something significant.
Three league losses on the road are taking a toll. Rice and his assistants - Justin Hutson, Stacey Augmon and Heath Schroyer - barked at players in anger throughout Monday's practice at the Thomas & Mack Center. Normally calm, Rice yelled that he had not "slept in two days" since the debacle in Boise.
It was the most intense practice of the season. When it was over, Rice pulled aside Moser and sat down for a conversation.
"It was more of a pep talk. I'm just encouraging him," Rice said. "I know he was frustrated. He's definitely playing hurt. It's just the fact that he's not 100 percent, and yet his experience is extremely important to our team. We certainly need strong leadership down the stretch.
"He was back to being the positive, energetic leader that we need him to be. You'll see a very different and more determined Mike Moser moving forward."
Rice described himself as "just hopeful" that Moser again can become the player he was last season and in November.
Moser was vague in describing how limited he is by the injury, unable to estimate if he's playing at 50 percent or 80 percent, or how much flexibility or strength is missing in his elbow.
"I don't know," he said. "I just want to do the things I can do. I can always bring energy and be positive and help my team. I know if we finish strong, then I'm finishing strong.
"If we can turn it around here and get this ship going the way we want it to sail, I'll be fine, and we'll be fine. And hopefully at the end of the season, we'll all be happy."
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.