Four years ago, two college basketball players from major programs decided to transfer. Each was recruited by UNLV and San Diego State.
One, Bryce Dejean-Jones from Southern California, went to the Rebels.
The other, JJ O’Brien from Utah, went to the Aztecs.
It was thought at the time that UNLV had won the recruiting sweepstakes, that the Rebels had plucked by far the better player with a much bigger upside.
Four years later, Dejean-Jones wore out his welcome at UNLV and is playing a final season at Iowa State.
O’Brien? He’s a fifth-year senior kicking UNLV’s tail.
On Saturday afternoon, in front of a typical raucous gathering of 12,414 at Viejas Arena, that point was driven home when San Diego State rallied from 11 down in the second half to beat UNLV 53-47, handing the Rebels their fifth loss in six games and absolutely proving that while UNLV’s ship might not be sinking, it’s taking on heavy water.
O’Brien is the player who doesn’t make many headlines or highlight replays, who at 6 feet 7 inches tall isn’t all that dynamic or explosive. He’s just the player with 67 career wins at San Diego State in 2½ seasons, two trips to the NCAA Tournament and a Sweet 16 appearance.
Everywhere you look, similarities arise between the Rebels and Aztecs.
Big arenas. Big cities. Big fan bases. Big student followings.
Access to many of the nation’s top recruits.
But one program has for some time now offered veteran leadership.
One program keeps guys around.
One program finished Saturday’s game with five players on the floor that own a combined 19 years of college experience.
One program has JJ O’Brien.
The other doesn’t.
“We don’t win without JJ in this program and on this team,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “He knows how to play. He played (38 minutes) today, and sometimes you have to say, ‘I know he’s tired, but he’s 23 years old, so he can’t be tired.’ He’s a quiet leader. He says a few things at the right moment that are very impactful. It was a good game for all of us. It was a terrific game for JJ.
“UNLV loves this atmosphere. It loves this stage. They were skipping around and excited to be here. It wasn’t false bravado.”
It just didn’t have enough in the final five minutes.
Enough defense. Enough depth. Enough of anything.
O’Brien had 11 points and 10 rebounds, but his defense on UNLV sophomore Chris Wood made all the difference in a game in which the Rebels committed 16 turnovers, watched their bench be outscored 19-0 and had just 18 points in the paint compared with 36 for the Aztecs.
Wood played 32 minutes and scored two points. He took four shots and had three rebounds and three blocks. He was double-teamed most of the afternoon and yet never discovered a way around O’Brien, despite the latter giving up at least 4 inches.
And in the game’s final minutes, at its most critical juncture, San Diego State attacked inside and Wood didn’t defend with near enough intensity as teammate Goodluck Okonoboh played hesitantly with four fouls.
Each of UNLV starters, which included freshman Patrick McCaw for the second time this season, played at least 32 minutes, and three played 36 or more.
That’s a losing recipe against San Diego State.
It was 43-43 with 5:46 remaining. San Diego State closed on a 10-4 run.
That’s how the Aztecs play. That’s who they are. They can’t shoot a lick, but guard without fouling. They rank 16th nationally in fewest fouls per game. Teams aren’t coming in here and getting calls, much like they don’t get them against UNLV at the Thomas &Mack Center. To even suggest otherwise with veiled remarks about San Diego State being assessed just nine fouls after such a loss is silly.
No one wants to hear that. No one cares.
UNLV lost because it tired late, couldn’t make a shot and stopped defending.
San Diego State has won 133 straight games when leading with five minutes left, which it did Saturday.
That’s just a ridiculous stat.
“Maybe we ran out of gas, maybe energy, maybe energy is gas,” said McCaw, who impressed with 15 points and six rebounds. “It was something. We didn’t really utilize the bench.”
If there is no trust in it, that’s the fault of a coaching staff that built the roster.
Have enough players departed UNLV in recent times for various reasons that depth is such that the starters have to play so many minutes against the league’s best pressing team?
If you can’t look to your bench with any level of confidence, or can’t sit players who deserve to sit for their performance, what does that say about others you recruited and signed?
One guy UNLV didn’t sign four years ago killed the Rebels on Saturday.
“JJ has been in the system,” Aztecs guard Aqeel Quinn said. “You can’t say enough about him. He does everything right every day. He doesn’t skip anything. He just does everything right.”
O’Brien is a program guy. A glue guy.
The sort of guy UNLV desperately needs.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at email@example.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.