Rebounding will be difference between good and great season for Rebels

Quintrell Thomas had logged several minutes of basketball Tuesday evening when he raised his hand toward the UNLV bench. He was gassed and needed a break.

His wish wasn't immediately granted.

"I gotta get in better shape," Thomas said. "I'm not going to lie; I was winded. I can tell the coaches are trying to make sure I'm in the best shape possible."

There is a reason for that:

San Diego State 55, UNLV 45.

If one game points to what the Rebels lacked most in an otherwise memorable 2009-10 season, it was the Mountain West Conference Tournament final in March, a 40-minute demonstration of what improvement UNLV would need to make this year if it had any hopes of winning a championship.

San Diego State outrebounded the Rebels 37-26 that afternoon and by a combined 120-91 over three games last season. If preseason polls and predictions and forecasts of pundits are correct, the Aztecs and Rebels are two of four MWC teams capable of proving themselves the league's best.

For the Rebels, that means being much better chasing and collecting rebounds.

A newsletter previewing the team's exhibition game against Grand Canyon on Tuesday at the Thomas & Mack Center said the Rebels will look better this season walking through airports, a suggestion that bigger bodies tend to give basketball teams more of an impressive appearance.

It's true.

It also doesn't guarantee UNLV will be any better in its weakest area.

The hope is that a player such as Thomas -- a transfer from Kansas now eligible who offered eight points and eight rebounds in 20 minutes Tuesday -- can wield a frame listed at 6 feet 8 inches, 245 pounds inside enough to give UNLV a fighting chance on the boards.

Thomas is big by UNLV standards of late, meaning this isn't a program that has owned the luxury of deciding between which of several post players to start.

There haven't been that many.

"I wasn't necessarily considered a banger until I came here," Thomas said. "I'm big and strong, so I guess that's how people see me because it has been lacking here and now I've been thrown into the banger box. I don't mind. Whatever helps the team most. If people are talking about me, I must be doing something right."

The Rebels last season didn't do much of anything right on the boards, where they ranked fifth among conference teams in rebound margin and seventh in defensive rebounds.

Nationally, they ranked 219th of 347 teams in rebounding, nine spots behind Howard and five behind the likes of Austin Peay and Eastern Washington.

Interesting. UNLV ranked 56th nationally in scoring defense, limiting opponents to an average of 63.8 points. They ranked 30th in field-goal defense. They had few problems guarding people but a devil of a time finishing possessions.

"It was obvious we didn't rebound it well very often," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "We've got bigger bodies now, but that doesn't necessarily translate into rebounding better. We need to be aggressive getting after the ball."

Effort. Timing. Instincts. Positioning. Angles. UNLV players such as Thomas and Brice Massamba and Carlos Lopez have such attributes at some level when pursuing rebounds and yet greatly must increase their productivity in each area.

San Diego State returns all five starters and, just a guess, didn't become any less athletic over the summer for a team that ranked 10th nationally in rebound margin last season. Kawhi Leonard, who grabbed 21 rebounds against UNLV in the conference tournament final, isn't any less explosive.

This is what good teams such as UNLV should do -- assess where they are the weakest against their stiffest competition and strive to improve.

Athletically, the Rebels have not been in San Diego State's neighborhood in recent seasons.

Athleticism tends to translate on the boards.

"I think we can do a better job of competing against them this year," Thomas said. "(Watching the games) last year, it seemed like we did everything right against them except rebound. We should be better this season if we take care of business.

"I definitely got a sense last year of what we needed more of and what I needed to bring to the table. If I go out and score two points but get 14 rebounds because that's what the team needs, well, whatever it takes."

Nothing in a 90-66 win against a Division II team Tuesday suggested UNLV doesn't own the potential to win a Mountain West title. The Rebels are going to be quite good again.

If they rebound, they might even be more.

"Teams are going to try and beast us inside," sophomore guard Justin Hawkins said. "Adding a big body like Quintrell should help us when that happens."

It can't hurt, not when the likes of Howard and Austin Peay are within a rebound's reach.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 2 to 4 p.m. Monday and 2 to 3 p.m. Thursday on "Monsters of the Midday," Fox Sports Radio 920 AM.