COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Everything around him was a blur, and Chris Wood was moving in slow motion. That’s how he felt in November, when he looked and played like a raw freshman.
A few months later, he can laugh about it.
“I had no idea what was going on,” he said. “To start the season, I didn’t know what was going on on the court. I was lost, physically and mentally.”
A 6-foot-10-inch forward, Wood started to mature in December with more playing time and just recently found himself fitting in with the speed of the game. Now, with the Rebels in the stretch run, he’s being counted on to produce in the most important games of the season.
Alone in third place in the Mountain West and aiming to hold that seed for the conference tournament, UNLV (18-10, 9-6) gets another shot at Air Force (11-15, 5-10) at 1 p.m. today at Clune Arena.
The Falcons have won two of the past three meetings, blowing out the Rebels 71-56 here last season and pulling a 75-68 upset Jan. 4 in Las Vegas.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that Air Force has played extremely well against us,” coach Dave Rice said. “I do know that we always get their best shot.”
Wood scored four points in 12 minutes in the loss in January, but he is expected to see more action in the rematch. His size presents a matchup problem for the smaller Falcons on both ends of the court, and he’s finally learning how to use his length to his advantage.
On the defensive end, Wood’s long wingspan becomes a weapon when Rice opts to use more zone schemes, as he plans to today. Although Wood has been primarily a 3-point shooter, with 42 of his 93 shots coming from long range, he’s making more aggressive drives to the basket. Early in a loss to New Mexico on Feb. 19, Wood shot faked, took one dribble from the free-throw line and soared in for a dunk.
“That was a high-level play,” Rice said. “Chris is an effective scorer. He can be a mismatch in the post against a smaller guy, and he can stretch the defense. He’s got confidence shooting the ball. He’s a good 3-point shooter, and I’m good with him shooting a few a game.”
Rice encouraged Wood to continue firing away even while he was slumping. In an eight-game stretch in league play, Wood missed all 10 of his 3-point attempts. He snapped out of the funk by hitting 3 of 4 3s and averaging 8.0 points and 7.5 rebounds in UNLV’s past two games against Boise State and Colorado State.
Rice called it a “breakthrough week” for the Findlay Prep product who turned 18 in September.
“He’s getting a lot better. He has unbelievable talent,” senior guard Kevin Olekaibe said. “His ceiling is probably the highest on the team.
“He’s long and he can shoot, he can put the ball on the floor, go in the post, block shots and rebound. He’s going to be a great player in the future. I can’t wait to see him grow.”
Wood is growing now, from a player who never got off the bench in a November loss to Arizona State to the sixth man in the rotation on Wednesday, when he played a season-high 23 minutes in a 78-70 victory over the Rams.
“I know my role,” he said. “I think my minutes are where they need to be. I’m just trying to be patient.”
In the offseason, Wood’s plan is to add strength and weight to his 210-pound frame. For the moment, he’s studying film with Rebels assistant Todd Simon, his former coach at Findlay Prep, and working with the entire coaching staff on the details of the game, such as how to defend screens.
He said he’s picking up tricks on rebounding and shot blocking from starting forwards Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith.
Wood averages 4.4 points and 3.1 rebounds and is second on the team in blocks with 26. All of those numbers figure to rise next season, when his learning curve is not such a blur.
“I think it always helps when a young guy recognizes he’s a little bit confused because that just makes him inherently more coachable. It makes it easier for him to catch up,” Rice said. “He’s a guy who I can depend on coming off the bench.
“Chris is a talented guy. I think everyone sees the promise and a bright future with him.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.