In the middle of a promising season, Larry Nance Jr. reinforced his worth by disappearing. A mild case of mononucleosis shut him down, doing what no defense could do.
Nance lost about 20 pounds this month with the illness. In the senior forward’s absence, Wyoming dropped its next two games by margins of 23 and 26 points.
UNLV is not the only team in the Mountain West dealing with bad luck and scaled-back expectations.
But the Cowboys have more reason for hope, because Nance has returned, along with his appetite, energy and jump shot.
“I’ve still got some recovering to do,” he said. “I’m a little bit sore and a little bit fatigued, but at the same time it’s nothing crazy. I’ll be ready.”
That’s more bad news for the Rebels.
Nance leads Wyoming (21-7, 10-5) against UNLV (15-13, 6-9) at 5 p.m. today at the Thomas &Mack Center, where the Cowboys have lost 14 consecutive games to the Rebels since February 2004.
If there’s a time for Wyoming to stop that skid, this might be it. UNLV has dropped three of four games since losing freshman guard Rashad Vaughn, the team’s leading scorer, to a knee injury. Vaughn is questionable to return for the conference tournament.
“There’s no timetable for his return. Everything is going in a positive direction in terms of his rehab,” coach Dave Rice said of Vaughn, who had surgery Feb. 18.
Nance made his comeback Wednesday, but it was not enough of a shot in the arm for the Cowboys, who were upset on their home floor 64-59 by Fresno State.
“There’s certainly some disappointment, but this UNLV team provides a new challenge,” Nance said. “I know we’re all really hyped and excited for this game.”
In his first game back, Nance played 37 minutes, shot 4-for-10 from the field and finished with nine points and eight rebounds. Those are not his typical numbers. Two months ago in Laramie, on a night Rice remembers well, Nance scored 29 points to lift Wyoming to a 76-71 victory over UNLV.
“It certainly had an impact on Wyoming for the games that he was out,” Rice said. “What’s relevant is that he was fantastic against us on New Year’s Eve.
“Guys always make their most improvement from game one to game two, so I fully expect that he’ll be at 100 percent. We’re preparing for him to be the Player of the Year candidate Larry Nance that he was prior to having the illness.”
In the teams’ first meeting, Rice went mostly with a 1-2-2 zone defense, opting not to double-team Nance too frequently out of respect for perimeter shooting threats Josh Adams and Riley Grabau. That tactic was unsuccessful.
“We’ll try to give him different looks,” Rice said. “The primary focus when you play Wyoming has to be trying to figure out a way to stop Nance, and that’s easier said than done.”
Before his illness, Nance was in the hunt for league Player of the Year, an award likely destined to go to Boise State senior guard Derrick Marks.
“Obviously, Nance is a heck of a basketball player. It was really unfortunate what happened to him, getting sick and all, but he’s still very dangerous,” said Cody Doolin, the Rebels’ senior point guard. “He’s going to be a big factor in the game. We’ll have a strategy hopefully to slow him down a little bit.”
Down to seven scholarship players, and with redshirt forward Ben Carter sidelined from practices for the rest of the season with a back injury, Rice was forced to call on an unlikely source in preparation for the Cowboys.
Charles Rushman, a 6-foot-3-inch walk-on guard, played the role of the 6-8 Nance on the scout team this week.
It has been a season of insult and injury for UNLV, which is seventh in the league standings and off an 18-point loss at Utah State on Tuesday.
“The most important thing for us is to get on a roll and play good basketball, so when we get to the conference tournament, we’ll have some positive momentum,” Rice said. “I really believe this year more than ever the conference tournament is wide open.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.
WYOMING vs. UNLV
■ WHEN: 5 p.m. today
■ WHERE: Thomas & Mack Center
■ TV/RADIO: CBSSN (333), KWWN (1100 AM, 100.9 FM)
■ LINE: UNLV -3½