Exhibitions reveal several areas Rebels need to improve

I was looking for Lewis Skolnick at one guard spot and Gilbert Lowe at another and Dudley “Booger” Dawson at small forward.

I assumed Harold Wormser would act the part of ball boy and Arnold Poindexter as team statistician.

But it wasn’t Adams College that UNLV’s basketball team welcomed Tuesday night. It was Adams State.

The Rebels, I gather, might have preferred a group of nerdy Tri-Lambs.

They certainly would have been easier to put away.

Exhibitions are about warts. Discover yours, determine how large the blemishes are and devise a way to quickly expunge them.

Results are secondary, which is a good thing for the Rebels.

Four days after making Dixie State’s season before its season even began, UNLV beat Division II Adams State 72-67 before an inflated announced gathering of 11,275 at the Thomas &Mack Center.

It meant the Rebels split exhibitions, having lost to mighty Dixie 71-70.

It means Dave Rice isn’t lying.

There is a lot of work to do.

The Rebels are far from a finished product.

Fact: Booger Dawson might be able to shoot free-throws better than any of them.

It’s impossible to get a true feel for UNLV on a night its top two players — juniors Khem Birch and Bryce Dejean-Jones — are on the bench nursing injuries. Birch (ankle, toe) will play when UNLV opens its season against visiting Portland State on Friday; Dejean-Jones (hamstring) likely won’t.

The rotation won’t be as sporadic and the playing time for some is about to be dramatically reduced and increased for others, but within the framework of two exhibitions emerged a few telling issues:

The whistles aren’t going to stop. They are here to stay. College basketball is putting its foot down once and for all about the rough play that has in many ways ruined what was once a sport of constant fluidity.

So as coaches and players adjust to new rules regarding hand-checking and ugly games drag on for the next few months or longer, teams are going to either win or lose games at the free-throw line.

UNLV shot 28-of-56 from the line in two exhibitions, including 12-of-26 on Tuesday.

That will lose far more games than not.

That is really, really bad.

“If we make even a reasonable number of them (Tuesday), we probably win going away,” Rice said. “It’s a huge concern for us. We’re not going to run away from the free-throw (issues). We talk about it. We need to be tough and step up and make shots. It’s huge for momentum. We need to complete plays by going to the line and making free-throws.”

They also need to rebound much better.

Birch’s absence had much to do with Adams State out-rebounding UNLV 42-40, but it’s also true the Rebels won’t beat any exceptional teams (and perhaps not many good ones) if its guards don’t do a better job grabbing missed shots at the defensive end.

The Rebels need to board better, shoot much better from deep (they were a combined 13-of-43 on 3s in two exhibitions) and give thanks that the NCAA rightly ruled in favor of Kevin Olekaibe and his hardship waiver in transferring from Fresno State.

He is a senior guard with experience and skill, two significant traits desperately needed on a team with as many news faces as UNLV has. Olekaibe scored a team-high 17 points Tuesday, making 4-of-12 on 3s.

The Rebels lose without him. They don’t beat Lambda, Lambda, Lambda if Olekaibe isn’t on the court for a team-high 33 minutes. They go 0-for-the-Division II-exhibition-season if he had not been cleared.

“We have to work hard in practice and stay together,” Olekaibe said. “It’s going to take time and patience. That’s really all we can do — play together, stick together. We have to be more mentally tough when it comes to the (free-throws). We have to come in on our own time and work at it. That’s what great free-throw shooting teams do — work on the down time.

“Once we get our groove, we will be a very scary team to deal with.”

Exhibitions are in no way to be taken overly seriously, either in predicting how good a team might prove or how long a journey it faces to become respectable. UNLV might not be at the starting line in terms of potential, but it’s not very far down the track, either. There are going to be nights when shots fall; there are going to be nights when the Rebels can’t make one to save their lives.

Sounds familiar, no?

But the marathon begins for real Friday evening, and Booger Dawson isn’t walking through any arena doors for the Rebels to defend from now until March.

“We understand how far we have to go,” Rice said. “We understand that it starts for real now.”

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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