ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – When last we tuned into the soap opera of “As The Runnin’ Rebels Turn,” Bryce Dejean-Jones, the team’s star guard, could be seen venting angrily on the UNLV bench, starting forwards Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith expressed the frustration of having to get up for 8 a.m. practices and key sixth man Jelan Kendrick never made it to the floor after being “substantially late” for a workout.
Back-to-back home losses to expected Mountain West bottom-feeders like Air Force and Nevada had obviously taken its toll on a team that had just finished playing eight games over a 21-day span — including two road trips – along with some more travel for most players who flew home for Christmas break.
So maybe its a little understandable if Dave Rice’s squad, which had rolled off seven impressive wins before the two Mountain West home losses, was a little gassed.
But it will be a well-rested and anxious UNLV (10-6, 1-2) team that will invade The Pit on Wednesday night (6:15 p.m. PT, CBS Sports Network) to take on defending Mountain West champion New Mexico (12-3, 3-0).
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It’s the start of the team’s toughest two-game road trip of the year concluding with a Saturday afternoon contest at No. 10 ranked San Diego State. It’s also a chance for the Rebels to pick up some much-needed signature wins while also getting back into the Mountain West race.
“When you lose a game you wish you could play the next day because the sting is there and it hurts so bad,” Rice said. “(But it) probably was a good time for us to have the time off.”
Rice said he met individually with each player for between 20-to-30 minutes during the break to discuss the home collapses against Air Force and Nevada and came away convinced his squad was still a focused and tight-knit unit.
Much of the time off was focused on fixing a defense that was surprisingly carved up for easy layups and dunks by the Falcons and Wolf Pack.
“We did not do a good job of guarding dribble penetration and then we did not do a good job of helping when we got beaten off the dribble,” Rice said. “It was bad team defense just in general. We’ve got to make sure we do a much, much better job with our help defense. Having said that, its incumbent of our guys to guard dribblers better than we have the last couple of games.”
“I think we got a little comfortable winning the way we were,” Dejean-Jones said. “We kind of got a lead and then lost them in both games. That’s what we’ve been stressing this week – finishing games out.”
The Rebels now face the daunting challenge of trying to get back on track with back-to-back road games against arguably the league’s two best teams in what most consider the two toughest venues in the conference. It begins with defending champion New Mexico, which won two of the three meetings with the Rebels last year including a 63-56 victory in the Mountain West Tournament championship game.
“I look at it as an opportunity,” Dejean-Jones said. “A great opportunity to come out and get two good wins.”
Smith, who leads the nation in rebounding (12.8) and is second in double-doubles (11), was asked what the key would be for UNLV to pull the road upset against the Lobos.
“The biggest key is simple,” he said. “Just stay together.”