Big men embrace smaller role

Often judged on their production as a group, UNLV post players Brice Massamba, Matt Shaw and Darris Santee are like three guys sharing a one-bedroom apartment.

In the Rebels’ guard-oriented system, there’s room for only one big man on the floor at any time, and Massamba, Shaw and Santee split the role. It could be an uncomfortable situation, but the three form a bond while their playing time is divided.

“There’s no selfishness,” said Shaw, who has started 11 of the 20 games at the post position.

Massamba, a 6-foot-10-inch sophomore center, started UNLV’s first eight games at the five spot. Shaw, a 6-8 junior forward, took over as the starter for the next month. Santee, a 6-8 senior forward, has come off the bench in every game after getting 21 starts as a junior.

“Who starts is not the most important thing,” coach Lon Kruger said. “The three of them together are really doing a good job.”

Massamba is the probable starter when the Rebels (16-4, 4-2 Mountain West Conference) host Air Force (8-10, 0-5) at 7:30 p.m. today at the Thomas & Mack Center.

The game is being promoted as a “Black Out,” with the first 4,000 fans each receiving a black T-shirt. The occasion might seem appropriate because the Falcons are in the MWC’s Black Hole, losing 21 straight conference games.

Air Force, which has dropped its five league games by an average of 17.8 points, has been besieged by injuries. No aspect of the Falcons’ play is strong, and their inside game is especially weak.

It could be a rare opportunity for UNLV to dominate in the paint. Massamba contends the Rebels are capable of that, although he knows the team’s inside story is often criticized by outsiders.

“I’ve heard it before. But I don’t really listen to it. You can’t be mad or sad about that,” Massamba said. “If you know basketball, you know our plays go around the guards pretty much. Sometimes we don’t get the ball inside. But we’ve got some players who can play down low.”

Massamba, Shaw and Santee are combining to average 15.9 points and 8.6 rebounds while dividing 40 minutes per game. Shaw is the top scorer (6.8) and Santee is the top rebounder (3.8).

The threesome stood out Saturday, accounting for 22 points on 9-for-10 shooting in UNLV’s 79-70 victory at Texas Christian.

Kruger started Massamba instead of Shaw, who came off the bench for the first time since Dec. 12. Shaw, the Rebels’ leader in 3-point percentage (.415, 17-for-41), made 2 of 3 3-pointers and finished with 10 points.

“It doesn’t matter who starts,” Shaw said. “Whoever is getting results, they’re going to play.”

The downside against TCU was the three combined to grab just three rebounds, with Massamba getting none in 16 minutes.

“We would like to see a little more aggressive rebounding on the defensive boards. But we need that as a team, and it’s not just those guys,” Kruger said.

Massamba, bothered by left knee and Achilles injuries as a freshman, has shown more athletic bursts in recent games.

“I feel almost 100 percent now,” said Massamba, averaging 4.3 points and 2.0 rebounds in 11.9 minutes per game. “I played like I was terrible last year. It feels good to be able to play much better now, to be able to jump better and run better than I did last year. Of course, I have to improve my rebounding.”

Santee has not scored in double figures since a 13-point performance in a victory over Louisville on Nov. 28, when he played a season-high 20 minutes. When called upon, he has been productive. But he’s had to be patient while sitting.

“I know that when my time comes,” Santee said, “I’ve got to be ready and try my best to make the most of it and play hard.”

NOTES — Junior guard Tre’Von Willis was named the MWC Player of the Week after scoring a total of 51 points in UNLV’s victories at Colorado State and TCU. … After today’s game, the Rebels will be off until playing at Wyoming on Feb. 3.

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907.

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