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Redshirt freshman Morant patiently awaits chance

It can be a lonely existence at the end of the bench, as Demetris Morant is discovering. He’s getting a lot of time to think and little playing time.

Almost every basketball player enters a season with an optimistic outlook, hoping to earn minutes and a regular spot in the rotation. Morant kept realistic goals, but even those have been crushed five weeks into UNLV’s season.

A redshirt freshman forward, he’s the 11th man on a 12-man team, ahead of only walk-on guard Charles Rushman.

“It’s super difficult, I’m not going to lie,” Morant said. “At times, I’m not happy. I’ve just got to keep working hard and keep my head high.”

Morant might see the floor more than usual when the Rebels (5-4) host Sacred Heart (2-9) at 7 p.m. today in the Las Vegas Classic at the Thomas &Mack Center.

The tournament shifts to Orleans Arena for the final two rounds. UNLV will face Santa Clara in a Sunday semifinal and either Mississippi State or South Florida on Monday.

Morant played two minutes in the Rebels’ 81-62 victory over Radford on Wednesday. In a blowout win at Southern Utah on Saturday, he played six minutes and picked up three fouls. In five games, he has clocked a total of 18 minutes and has yet to score a point or even take a shot.

“Honestly, I thought I was going to get more minutes than I’m getting right now,” he said. “I’m not saying I should start or get 20 minutes a game. I thought I was going to get around eight to 10 minutes a game.”

The 6-foot-9-inch Morant understands the situation. He’s the team’s fifth forward, behind Roscoe Smith, the nation’s leading rebounder, Khem Birch, the nation’s No. 4 shot blocker, and reserves Chris Wood and Carlos Lopez-Sosa. He actually has moved up a spot.

Jamal Aytes, a freshman forward who played 37 minutes in four games, left UNLV last week and transferred to Brigham Young. Morant said Aytes also was expecting more playing time.

“Jamal was never happy,” Morant said. “He never wanted to come here. I don’t know the whole story, but it seemed like he always wanted to go to BYU.”

When Morant was at Bishop Gorman High School, he always wanted to play for the Rebels. So far, he’s mostly just getting to practice with them. But he has family members and teammates providing support.

“He’s only a freshman, and you’ve got to encourage him,” Birch said. “I’ve always said he can be a good NBA player because of his athleticism and he can jump out of the gym. I see a lot of improvement in him. He’s way better than last year. Last year in practice, he didn’t even try to score, but now he tries to score the ball.”

UNLV coach Dave Rice said Morant is caught in the same “numbers game” that frustrated Aytes, but Rice plans to use his backup post players more in preparation for the Mountain West schedule.

“Demetris is a guy who has done a great job the last several weeks with practice,” Rice said. “I’m very encouraged with how hard he’s working, and I’m going to continue to try to find minutes for him. The only thing he lacks is experience. I still believe he can be a big part of our program in the future.”

Rice’s strategy entering the season was to utilize a full-court press and go deep on the bench.

“That was the plan. I don’t know what happened to the plan, but it seems like we’re going a different way,” Morant said. “Right now, we’re not running that much, and we’re not pressing that much, either.”

Morant, who didn’t start playing basketball until he was a high school freshman, is focused on developing his still-raw skills and staying in a positive frame of mind.

“Every day, I still give it my all and try to help my team,” he said. “Just be patient and don’t get discouraged. Don’t think about the negatives.

“I’m still learning the game. I’m aggressive sometimes but not all the time. Every time I’m aggressive, good things happen. I know I have the ability to play on this level.”

■ NOTES — UNLV defeated Sacred Heart 103-56 in 1998 in the teams’ only meeting. … The Pioneers, from the Northeast Conference, lost 70-61 at Santa Clara on Wednesday.

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

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