unlv basketball:

The Rebels plan to debut style changes — more pressure and more speed — in exhibition

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Current player Khem Birch poses for a photo with former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian after an oversized statue of Tarkanian was unveiled in front of the Thomas & Mack Center Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013.

Exhibition or not, the changes start tonight for the UNLV basketball team.

Rebels coach Dave Rice wants his team to play differently this season — more pressure, more speed, fewer headaches — and the plan is for those alterations to all be implemented in the team’s first exhibition game at 8 p.m. tonight against Dixie State at the Thomas & Mack Center.

“We’re going to treat it like a regular-season game,” Rice said.

Well, almost.

Rice plans to experiment with different rotations to see how they operate together. Other than that, though, the Rebels want to run the same system against Dixie State that they will in next Friday’s regular-season opener against Portland State.

That means lots of full-court pressure and a much quicker trip to the bench for poor decisions such as bad shots. One of the most common complaints about last year’s team was the free reign certain players — most notably freshman guard Katin Reinhardt — had from the beginning. No more, Rice said.

“I’ve always been a guy that once you get that confidence, I want to let guys play with freedom,” Rice said. “At the same time, I thought it was important to balance that early on with managing shot selection.”

And part of managing shot selection means getting the ball to the post, where UNLV’s most important player, Khem Birch, could emerge as the league’s best front-court player. Birch is already a force on defense and one of UNLV’s best recruiters — he’s had a hand in at least five recent commitments — and now he enters his junior year with an overhauled offensive game.

“I’m not there, but it’s coming along,” Birch said. “Last year I was rushing into everything, and now I’m patient.”

Birch’s success or failure will depend a lot on his teammates getting him the ball. Although he’s much more confident dribbling than he was last year, Birch will still be dependent on passes into the mid and low post to get most of his touches.

Those looks should be abundant because there’s a consensus among the team that they need Birch for more scoring than his 7.2 points per game last season.

“He’s earned that (opportunity) with his hard work in the offseason,” Rice said.

Last year the Rebels’ lone exhibition game was also against Dixie State, and it was an inauspicious start. UNLV went to overtime and won 81-80 on Carlos Lopez-Sosa’s layup in the final seconds. This year the Rebels are certainly hoping for an easier victory, but junior Roscoe Smith said they know there will still be some jitters.

“We know that we’re going to make a lot of mistakes,” Smith said. “… We’re not really worried about that.”

If UNLV executes its full-court pressure well, the Rebels should be able to get enough easy baskets to keep Dixie State at least an arm’s length away. They could also just get big nights from newcomers such as Jelan Kendrick and DeVille Smith or returner Bryce Dejean-Jones.

Everyone except senior Kevin Olekaibe, who’s still waiting to hear from the NCAA on his transfer waiver, is available for the Rebels. That means freshmen Dantley Walker, Christian Wood, Kendall Smith and Jamal Aytes should all see the floor, some for more minutes than others.

Although this a chance for veterans to get back into the flow, it’s more important for the younger guys, including redshirt freshman Demetris Morant, who don’t have any college minutes to their credit. This is when they can show Rice not only that they can play, but more important that they can play the way he wants to this season.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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