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Humbled Mike Moser fueling UNLV’s hot start in many ways

In the second half of his seven-year run as UNLV's head coach, Lon Kruger built up his roster with several transfers from high-profile programs such as UCLA, Kentucky, Memphis and Kansas.

Oddly enough, the one who has turned out to have the biggest impact on the program is one that Kruger never got the chance to coach.

Kruger left for Oklahoma after last season, and sophomore UCLA transfer Mike Moser has been the biggest driving force behind 18th-ranked UNLV's torrid 8-0 start under first-year coach Dave Rice.

In each of his first two weeks of eligibility, Moser has claimed Mountain West Player of the Week honors. Last week's résumé was capped with a 16-point, 18-rebound, 6-assist effort in the Rebels' 90-80 upset on Saturday night of then-No. 1 North Carolina.

He could be well on his way to taking the crown for a third week in a row. As UNLV out-lasted UC Santa Barbara on Wednesday night in their first road game of the season, he scored a career-high 34 points to go with 10 rebounds, giving Moser his fifth double-double of the year. Against the Gauchos, he lifted a dormant Rebels offense in the second half by scoring 25 of the team's 44 points, and he also showed off more versatility than ever before by going 6-of-9 from 3-point range. Before Wednesday, he was just 2-of-17 from deep in seven games.

Moser's strength, without question, is his rebounding. Along with his 17.5 points per game, he's averaging 13.3 rebounds every time he steps on the floor. Of those, 8.6 are on the defensive glass, which is helping erase what was a major weakness for the Rebels a year ago during a 24-win campaign, as opponents with big, physical front lines were able to eat them up with second chance scoring opportunities.

"UNLV's Mike Moser is one of the best rebounder I have seen in a while," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas tweeted on Sunday. "Agile, long and believes every ball belongs to him. Impressive."

What's also coming now is attention from NBA personnel. 

Against UNC, roughly 40 scouts and executives were in attendance, mostly to check out the Tar Heels' collection of future NBA talent. But in the process, Moser generated plenty of buzz from them himself. Four nights later, a handful made the trip to Santa Barbara to check him out again.

There's not much for them not to like. At 6-foot-8, not only is he an elite-level rebounder, but he can defend all five positions on the floor, has deadly touch on his mid-range jumper and explosive leaping ability. At UNLV, he's technically listed as the team's starting power forward, but pro scouts are seeing that he could play either forward spot at the next level, as he's regularly running the break himself off of those defensive caroms.

After only eight games, the 'one-and-done' talk is already starting. Even teammate Bryce Jones, a highly-touted USC transfer who is redshirting this season, tweeted at Moser during Wednesday's win begging him to stay one more year just so the two can play together for a bit.

But there are plenty of examples floating around that the NBA, right now, is the last thing on Moser's mind.

From the moment he arrived at UNLV last season, Moser established himself as the team's resident prankster in an effort to promote camaraderie. Still, while he went hard at practice every day, he felt that when the team slumped mid-season, it wasn't quite his place to speak up.

This year, he's impacting the team in every way possible. On the floor, he's played with the chip on the shoulder that he's admitted to carrying with him from a frustrating one-year experience on Ben Howland's bench. Even his jersey number — 43 — was inspired by a wise crack someone made at a pick-up game this summer about his limited playing time as a UCLA frosh.

After games, he's been spotted helping struggling teammate Karam Mashour get extra work in. Moser said that becoming a better teammate in that sense was something that naturally developed after he wore those same shoes with the Bruins.

"I remember being Karam at UCLA," he said recently. "Sitting there the whole game, ready to play, and you only get so many minutes. It didn't feel like you were part of the game, so you come back out and try to get some work in.

"As much as I probably didn't like the situation (at UCLA) at the time, it definitely humbled me a lot, and it makes it easier to enjoy this moment right now. I'm playing well, and the team's rolling. I think without that (in the past), it wouldn't feel as good as it does right now."

The remaining suspense comes from seeing whether Moser can keep this type of play up the rest of the way. UNLV's schedule is far from light before Mountain West Conference play begins. Before Christmas, they battle at Wichita State (Sunday), at Wisconsin (Dec. 10), against Illinois at the United Center in Chicago (Dec. 17) and against Cal at home (Dec. 23).

If he does keep it up, the buzz will find no ceiling.

Follow Ryan Greene on Twitter: @ryanmgreene

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