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College Basketball Insider

UNLV has great bigs but might actually be better playing small

LAS VEGAS -- UNLV recorded a double-digit win late Tuesday over an in-state rival before a crowd of 16,787 that included former baseball star Greg Maddux, current baseball star Bryce Harper and college basketball icon Jerry Tarkanian. So it was a fun and good night out here in the desert. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise. But it was still hard not to stare at the final box score and focus on the fact that Mike Moser took six shots, missed five and finished with just three points in the Rebels' 66-54 victory over Nevada at Thomas & Mack Center.

"But Mike had great energy," said UNLV coach Dave Rice, which was true. But what's also true is that this 6-foot-8 forward who averaged 14.0 points and 10.5 rebounds last season is now averaging just 8.2 points and 6.7 rebounds this season, and he has only scored in double digits once in his past eight appearances. He didn't have a field goal on Tuesday night until 36 minutes had expired. He had more fouls than made free throws.

So what's the problem with Mike Moser?

There are lots of answers to that question, but let me start by pointing out that he's still not completely recovered from a shoulder injury suffered in a win at California in early December. That's undeniably part of the problem. But another issue is that Rice recruited so well over the past two years that he landed Pittsburgh transfer Khem Birch and high school All-American Anthony Bennett, and the presence of those two bigs combined with Moser's desire to return to school and show NBA scouts he can play on the perimeter has made him into a part-time small forward.

Problem is, he's not really a small forward.

Not even part of the time.

Moser is shooting just 22.6 percent from 3-point range after an 0-for-2 effort against Nevada, and every Mountain West Conference coach is aware of that statistic. Consequently, nobody really guards Moser when he steps away from the basket, which leaves the lane clogged. So though it's possible that Bennett, Birch and Moser would be the first, second and third players drafted off this UNLV roster, there's mounting evidence to suggest UNLV might be better when all three of them aren't on the floor together because these are the Runnin' Rebels, after all, and it's easier to run and score with three guards as opposed to three bigs.

"We still want to be the Runnin' Rebels," Rice said, "And we're just better in transition with the smaller lineup."

It's also worth noting that UNLV point guard Anthony Marshall isn't a true point guard, which is why it's simpler for the Rebels to score in transition than in a halfcourt set. And UNLV is better defensively with the small lineup, too. Or at least that was the case Tuesday night against Nevada's dynamic backcourt.

So keep an eye on this as UNLV continues to stack wins with one of the nation's deepest and most-talented rosters because it figures to be an interesting subplot given that the reality with this team might contradict conventional wisdom. Talk to coaches, and most will tell you they try to keep their best players on the court as much possible; that's almost always smart strategy. But do Moser, Bennett and Birch need to be playing together? I'm beginning to think maybe not. And the fact that Rice started three guards against Nevada for the first time in five games suggests he's starting to think maybe not, too.

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