Perhaps this is oversimplifying it, but after watching UNLV come from behind and hold off San Diego State 72-70 at the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday night, I think I might know what’s wrong with the Rebels.
They don’t get down and slap the floor like they used to.
Getting down and slapping the floor is a defensive thing. These Rebels are mostly concerned with offensive things.
It finally happened during the second half Saturday.
With about 12 minutes to go and the Rebels having recovered their competitive balance, assistant coach Heath Schroyer jumped off the bench and got down real low in a defensive stance.
Usually, you’d prefer it to be one of the players. But it’s a long season, and you take emotion wherever you can find it.
I couldn’t tell if Schroyer slapped the floor. But he was inches from it, and he was clenching his fists, and his face was red, and his hair was all out of place, like Shemp from The Three Stooges. And if the five other Rebels on the court didn’t see it, they began playing as if they had.
They put the Aztecs in a vise and turned the crank.
Remember the 2006-07 season when the Rebels would be down, and Curtis Terry would come off the bench, and he or Wink Adams would ignite a little flurry with a basket or two?
And then Terry would get down and slap the floor on the defensive end?
He’d get up in your grille, jump into your athletic supporter, whatever it took. Then the little flurry would become a big flurry, like against Wisconsin during the NCAA Tournament in Chicago, and then afterward Bo Ryan would whine about Kevin Kruger and eligibility rules.
Other than Anthony Marshall, these Rebels don’t seem to have a lot of guys like Terry. They don’t have a lot of defensive floor slappers. (Marshall was 0-for-8 from the floor Saturday, but at least he wound up in the second row once chasing a loose ball.)
Those Rebels, the ones of Terry and Wink and Kevin Kruger and the two-headed monster in the middle that was Joel Anthony and Gaston Essengue — who overachieved like crazy and made it to the Sweet 16 — had hard noses. They were a reflection of their coach.
I doubt very seriously that Lon Kruger got down and slapped the floor on defense when he was wearing the short shorts at Kansas State. That would have been calling attention to himself, and that wasn’t Kruger’s style.
But old Kansas Jayhawks and Oklahoma State Cowboys and Iowa State Cyclones will testify how Kruger would plumb get after you. So, too, would his teams.
On Saturday, Dave Rice’s team finally got after the Aztecs during that stretch midway in the second half. It went on a 14-0 run that turned a 54-48 deficit into a 62-54 lead.
Where there was apathy and disinterest at Air Force, there was fire and brimstone three nights later. But if you can’t generate fire and brimstone at home, in front of a sellout crowd of 18,577, then you probably aren’t wired right.
“It’s all about heart and passion with our team,” Rice said afterward.
It was during the second half.
And yet the Rebels still were shaky in various spots. They struggled down the stretch, and one of the first things Rice mentioned was their 17 turnovers and how they are far too many.
Heading into Saturday, the Rebels had a turnover ratio of minus-2.6 in conference games. That was last in the Mountain West, by a bunch. (Air Force was eighth at minus 0.7.)
During the 2006-07 season, when the wild-haired Terry and his teammates would slap the floor on defense, the Rebels ranked third in the Mountain West in turnover margin with plus-2.5.
So the difference between that team and this one is roughly five turnovers per game. That’s a potential swing of 10 points, or more, if you take into account a team’s likelihood of attempting a 3-point field goal after creating a turnover. With UNLV, that likelihood is significant.
Would 10 or more points have made a difference in some of these road defeats? Not against Air Force. Certainly in the others.
It’s hard enough to win on the road when games are close and you are attempting 76 free throws and the other guys are attempting 132. Turning the ball over makes it only more difficult, especially when the other guys aren’t doing it.
But on Saturday the Rebels showed some spark, and they lost the turnover battle only by 3, and they blocked some shots. And in the second half, even Anthony Bennett got in the way of a couple of Aztecs inside the paint.
So maybe the message boards won’t be quite so harsh today.
The Rebels don’t go back on the road for another six days. They still have time to get down on defense and slap the floor when the other team has the ball.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.