SAN JOSE, Calif. — Rashad Muhammad is the face of his basketball team, for better or worse. He continues to smile, even while leading one of the worst teams in the nation.
It was early December when San Jose State last won a game, and it has not defeated a Division I opponent for more than a year.
“I’m definitely not used to losing games. I feel that would take a toll on anybody if you’re a competitor,” he said. “Under the circumstances we’re in, it’s not easy on us. I try to stay as positive as possible and keep us all together so we don’t go our separate ways.”
Muhammad, a 6-foot-6-inch sophomore guard, was on a Bishop Gorman High School team that won back-to-back state championships. That was the better half of his career, and this is the worst.
Still, his attitude could not be any better. The Spartans, banned from next week’s Mountain West tournament because of Academic Progress Rate sanctions by the NCAA, are well aware of what’s on the line today.
“This is our last chance,” Muhammad said. “I’m going to leave my heart out there. We’re all going to be ready to play.”
San Jose State (2-27, 0-17) will be trying to avoid a winless conference season when it hosts UNLV (16-14, 7-10) at 7 p.m. at The Event Center, where plenty of good seats will be available.
The Rebels are without two of their top three scorers — freshman guards Rashad Vaughn and Patrick McCaw. Vaughn (17.8 points per game) has been out since mid-February with a knee injury, and McCaw (10.0) suffered a concussion in the second half of a loss to San Diego State on Wednesday.
So, UNLV coach Dave Rice is left with six scholarship players, two walk-on guards and a motivational speech to deliver.
He expects the Spartans, 1-35 in league play the past two seasons, to show up in a desperate mood.
“It’s a very, very dangerous game,” Rice said. “I know it will be a championship game for them, and they will play with a great sense of urgency. We will communicate that to our guys.”
San Jose State coach Dave Wojcik, a former Boise State assistant, took over a sagging program and is in the second year of rebuilding it. He suspended five players, including Muhammad, in December, and lost four starters for parts of the season.
Wojcik is not feeling sympathy for Rice and not feeling sorry for himself. In his 24th year in coaching, Wojcik is facing a new challenge.
Verbally berating his players is not in his game plan. The losing is hard on everyone involved, he said, and getting angry compounds the problem.
“I’ve never gone through it,” Wojcik said. “What are you going to do? I could beat down my guys, but what will that get me? It builds frustration on both levels. You have to be enthusiastic.
“We are undermanned, there’s no question about it. But you go to work. My dad worked in the mill, and he went to work every day. He taught me that you’re going to have good days and you’re going to have bad days.”
The Spartans have lost 15 of 17 conference games by double digits, sniffing success only in a five-point loss to Wyoming on Jan. 3 and in a three-point loss to UNR on Feb. 7.
San Jose State did lead San Diego State 36-35 at halftime on Feb. 21, but the Aztecs pulled away to win 74-56. Muhammad had 27 points, and Darryl Gaynor II, a freshman guard from Durango High, scored 23.
When the teams met at the Thomas &Mack Center on Jan. 10, the Rebels rolled to a 74-40 victory. Muhammad and Gaynor combined to shoot 2-for-27 from the field.
“Not a night I want to remember,” said Muhammad, who was 0-for-11 and scored three points on free throws. “It was my first time playing at home. Growing up, I loved UNLV and went to all of the games. Shooters have their off days, and that was one of my off days.”
Muhammad, who ranks third all time at San Jose State with 132 made 3-pointers, is averaging 13.8 points and sits at the top of UNLV’s scouting report.
“We’ve got to make sure we find him,” Rice said. “Muhammad can score in bunches, and he has deep range.”
Wojcik mentioned the matchup problem presented by Chris Wood, the Rebels’ 6-11 sophomore forward, but he talked more about today and the future.
San Jose State has a transfer guard from Utah redshirting and a four-star recruit committed as part of a promising incoming class.
“We’ll be a lot better next year,” Wojcik said. “This is going to be a hard-fought game, I know that.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.
UNLV vs. SAN JOSE STATE
■ WHEN: 7 p.m. today
■ WHERE: The Event Center, San Jose, Calif.
■ RADIO: KWWN (1100 AM, 100.9 FM)
■ LINE: UNLV -13½