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Freshmen play like it, especially on defense

TEMPE, Ariz.

This is what they don’t write about in those lavish recruiting profiles.

These are the things you don’t hear about when a prep basketball star signs with your favorite college.

These are the areas that are never featured in a YouTube highlight tape.

Major college basketball is a massive jump for all but a few special talents each year, a challenge on the defensive end that most first-year players struggle understanding.

Some pick things up quickly.

Others don’t.

Those on UNLV’s roster are proving to be firmly situated in the latter group.

The Rebels on Wednesday evening lost for the second time this season in overwhelming fashion, falling to Arizona State 77-55 before a very nonintimidating 5,822 at Wells Fargo Arena.

It was UNLV’s first true road game of the season, and the atmosphere compared to that of a Sunday morning church bazaar.

But much as it did in being throttled by Stanford in a Coaches vs. Cancer semifinal in New York on Nov. 21, UNLV looked utterly lost defensively on more possessions than not.

Twice now, the Rebels have opposed a team with similar skill and athleticism, and both times have been exposed as a side with several players who either don’t yet comprehend how to defend at this level or aren’t able to.

“We have to grow up, and that’s the way it is,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “It’s certainly all part of the experience. It’s part of the adjustment process. We have to be better. It’s much harder to (teach) team defense. We have to do a better job. If one guy breaks down right now, it’s a problem.”

Fact: No matter how good a certain high school program is, it can’t in any way mimic the speed and athletic ability found in college. Superior athletes make defensive mistakes all the time at the prep level, but their talent allows those errors to be covered up.

Not here.

So when you need a freshman to help and recover, to hedge ball screens, to lock and trail shooters and be in a defensive stance on the catch, to not lose sight of man and ball, to understand spacing and rotations, to not get screened by creating angles or lowering his shoulder and going inside, to see the screen before it occurs, to hustle back in transition and not mope after missing a shot, most fail miserably to begin their careers.

And when they do, an Arizona State team that scored just 49 points in beating mighty Bethune-Cookman makes 11 of 22 3-pointers against you and has 16 second-chance points off 11 offensive rebounds and beats you down the court time and again.

When you can’t defend teams of like ability, a 21-6 lead to open the game eventually turns into a 22-point loss.

This will never change: Those 71-34 runs by the other guys are really tough to overcome.

“It’s all stuff we’re trying to learn,” UNLV senior point guard Cody Doolin said. “We have to get past the fact that when we’re not making shots — especially on the road, when you’re not going to hit as many as you do at home — you really have to sit down and guard. Our defense in the second half wasn’t nearly as good as we’d like it to be.

“We’re young. We say it over and over and don’t like to use it as an excuse, but we are. It was the first true road game for a lot of these guys and against a really well-coached Pac-12 team. It was always going to be a tough game for us.”

It’s fortunate for UNLV that it features some skilled shot blockers — the Rebels rank second nationally with an 8.4 average — because if it couldn’t protect the rim in addition to all the defensive weaknesses it has right now, things might get really bad fast against anyone good.

I’m not all that certain Arizona State is even that.

What you don’t want to hear, or shouldn’t, is that the Rebels rank 10th nationally in field-goal percentage defense.

That’s about as misleading a stat as there is today.

In two games that would hold any weight when NCAA Tournament resumes are judged in March, UNLV allowed Stanford and Arizona State to shoot 25 of 42 on 3s for almost 60 percent.

That’s, well, all kinds of atrocious.

This is not a top-10 team defensively in anything outside those blocks, not really, not against better teams on the schedule.

What is UNLV?

It is the perfect example of what happens, not just to the Rebels but at several programs across the country, when teams that feature a majority of first-year players begin asking kids to grasp and execute defensive concepts.

It’s gets really ugly some nights.

All you can do is continue working and preaching and drilling those concepts into players’ heads.

Much tougher opponents than Arizona State remain on UNLV’s schedule, and already there are two tapes of some major defensive deficiencies for teams such as Arizona and Kansas and Utah and San Diego State and Wyoming and Colorado State to dissect.

You don’t hear much about a kid’s inability to help and recover and hedge ball screens and lock and trail shooters and not lose sight of ball and man when recruiting stars are being attached to highlight films.

But you sure see it when they’re no longer high school stars.

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 100.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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