Turnovers cast shadow over UNLV’s potential

The rain clouds have moved away from those storms of disaster that were road losses to Fresno State and Air Force, and light appears to be shining through the mist upon UNLV’s basketball team.

There is just one thing holding up a rainbow from forming.

“It’s a problem for us,” Rebels coach Dave Rice said.

You can’t expect a prism effect in the sky when you’re turning the ball over so much on the court.

Want proof of UNLV’s talent?

The Rebels have won three straight and are a game out of second place in the Mountain West, a final stretch of three winnable regular-season games beginning today at UNR. This, despite having turned the ball over 52 times in the past 120 minutes and ranking last in turnover margin through 13 league games.

UNLV forfeits offensive possessions like Rory McIIroy does rounds of golf.

You might get away with that against conference teams that you know better than yourself, opponents you scout annually and have a good idea of how best to attack and defend.

Do you know what 18 turnovers usually gets you on a neutral court in the NCAA Tournament against a quality opponent you know little about?

A quick trip home.

“We have too many guys right now trying to make unselfish plays,” Rice said. “We’re trying to make the home run play when we need to be making simple plays. The more simple, fundamental play. By doing that, we can take those 18 turnovers and get them down to 12 or 13. It’s not hard to cut out four, five turnovers a game by making smarter decisions and valuing the ball more.

“But you’re right — we can’t expect to win close games (in March) on a neutral court turning the ball over 18 times. We have to start doing a better job taking care of the ball. I like that we’re playing unselfishly, but for us to take the next step, we have to value the ball more.”

Rice is hoping recent results — home wins against San Diego State and Colorado State, a decisive road win against albeit a depleted Wyoming side — are signs that what many felt about the Rebels to begin the season proves to be an accurate picture.

That when March arrived, UNLV would be a much better side than it was in December.

There remains a question mark for UNLV in any game away from the Thomas & Mack Center, because while winning in Laramie never should be scoffed at, the Cowboys were without their two best players against the Rebels.

The game at UNR today should be a far more competitive test for a UNLV team still fighting for the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.

This is UNR’s NCAA Tournament.

This is its version of the madness.

“It’s a very big deal,” Rice said. “Our goal is to always win the regular-season conference title. It looks like that won’t happen, and all the credit goes to (first-place) New Mexico. But now we need to finish as high as we possibly can. We can still finish second, and that’s important.”

His rotation most nights has appeared to be set off more feel than standard substitution patterns, never completely sure who will feel like defending. But as the conference tournament draws nearer, Rice just might have one wild card that could make all the difference.

This hasn’t been close to the season Mike Moser imagined, an all-league player in 2011-12 who believed his junior year would act as a successful springboard to him departing school early for the NBA Draft.

He will likely still leave UNLV after this season, but the elbow injury he suffered at California affected how good he could be and how quickly UNLV had to adapt.

Just now, Moser is again showing signs of the ability most forecast months ago.

“Everything went south for him Dec. 9 at Cal,” Rice said. “But I am most proud of how he responded, of being positive and helping our team in the minutes he has received. He is starting to play a lot more like the Mike Moser prior to the injury, and that can only be good for us as we move forward into March.

“We’re playing better at both ends of the floor. I would say that I am cautiously optimistic.”

Translation: The clouds are moving and light is shining through.

One day soon, he might even see a rainbow draped over the Rebels.

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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