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UNLV looks at “man in the mirror” before Maui Invitational

UNLV’s first men’s basketball game — a drubbing at the hands of Big Sky opponent Montana State — couldn’t have gone much worse.

The Rebels started slow on offense. They were careless with the ball. Above all else, their defense lacked intensity. The team’s guards seemingly invited the Bobcats into the paint time and time again.

UNLV’s second contest doesn’t offer much of an opportunity for a get-right game. The Rebels (0-1) begin the eight-team Maui Invitational at 4 p.m. Monday against No. 16 North Carolina (1-0), which means what went wrong in the opener needs to get fixed. Fast.

“We’re playing against the man in the mirror,” coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “We’re playing against ourselves and us getting better and us continuing to improve through the course of the season.”

There’s no doubt the Tar Heels Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams had to like watching the tape of the Montana State game before his program’s sixth all-time meeting with UNLV, and first since 2012 (North Carolina is 4-1). His team has a talented young guard in freshman Caleb Love — the No. 7 overall player in the class of 2020, according to 247 Sports — who can break down a defense if the Rebels remain uninterested in stopping dribble penetration.

The Tar Heels should be difficult to stop once they get inside. They boast one of the best frontcourts in the country. Senior 6-foot-10 forward Garrison Brooks is the preseason Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, and 6-foot-10 sophomore Armando Bacot and 7-foot-1 freshman Walker Kessler are on the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award list for the top center in the country.

That should challenge a UNLV team that has two players listed taller than 6-foot-9, one of whom — freshman center Jhaylon Martinez — didn’t play during the opener.

“They have waves of big, physical post players,” Otzelberger said. “We’ll try to combat that with personnel, scheme, game plan and effort all to try to be successful.”

The Rebels’ chances lie in proving they’re a better team than they showed in their opener. The main emphasis in practice since then has been guarding the ball and making sure they’re not getting beat off the bounce, something Otzleberger termed the team’s “Achilles heel” against Montana State.

Players were blown by so easily that it forced the team’s help defenders to make difficult decisions quickly. That often led Bobcats to be wide open for kick-out 3s. Montana State shot 10 of 18 from 3-point range.

The poor defensive showing also ran counter to the identity Otzelberger is trying to build. He wants to be a team that pressures the ball and gets offense from its defense. UNLV didn’t come close to that Wednesday, but it now has four games in the next week to show the performance was an outlier.

The Rebels will face either Stanford or Alabama in their second game of the Maui Invitational on Tuesday, and they will play their third game of the tournament Wednesday. UNLV also travels to Kansas State for a game Saturday.

“When you’re not successful or you don’t play to the level that you’d like to, you want to get right back out there and right the situation,” Otzelberger said. “For us right now, it’s about when we have the opportunity to be out there, making sure we’re playing the best basketball we can play as a team.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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