Say this for UNLV: Its timing could not have been better.
The Rebels saved one of their most pathetic performances in years for a night when the highly anticipated Champions Classic doubleheader in Chicago overshadowed every other game on the college basketball schedule.
The spotlight will shine on Las Vegas soon enough, however if UNLV delivers many more performances as dreadful as Tuesday night's 86-65 home loss to a UC Santa Barbara team coming off a 20-loss season a year ago. Everything went so badly for the Rebels that they never trimmed the deficit to less than 15 in the second half and their own fans showered them with boos throughout the closing minutes.
"A pitiful performance," UNLV coach Dave Rice called it after the game, and a closer look at the game reveals it's hard to argue with him.
On offense, UNLV struggled to attack a simple zone, consistently settling for jump shots as it did so many times last season. The Rebels attempted 24 threes and shot 36.5 percent from the floor, a miserable night highlighted by 8 of 32 shooting from the starters. Only reserve guards Kevin Olekaibe and Kendall Smith had any success against the zone, the former sinking five 3-pointers and the latter going 5 of 6 from the floor.
Shooting woes weren't altogether stunning for UNLV considering it lost a lot of scoring from last year and top perimeter weapon Bryce Dejean Jones isn't fully healthy, but the defensive issues were more surprising.
UC Santa Barbara shot a ridiculous 55.8 percent from the floor, almost 14 percent higher than what the Gauchos averaged last season. Six-foot-7 all-Big West center Alan Williams tallied 21 points and nine rebounds against the taller, more renowned UNLV frontcourt, while Kyle Boswell highlighted a 9 of 14 3-point shooting nine for the Gauchos with five threes of his own.
It would be a lot easier to write off UNLV's struggles as an aberration had the Rebels showed more in their previous games. They dropped an exhibition game against Division II Dixie State and only led Portland State by one point at halftime in their season opener Friday night before pulling away in the second half for a 67-48 victory.
The prevailing notion about UNLV entering the season was that the Rebels might be able to meet or exceed last season's success despite not having nearly the same level of talent. Sure, Anthony Bennett is in the NBA, Kaitin Reinhardt and Mike Moser transferred and Anthony Marshall graduated, but perhaps the chemistry and roster fit issues that plagued last year's team would dissipate.
Maybe that will eventually come true. Maybe UNLV will shake off its November struggles and emerge as an upper-echelon Mountain West team. But for right now, the Rebels look a lot like last year's disjointed team only without the same elite talent to bail themselves out against lesser foes.
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