When the UNLV basketball team plays its regular season opener on November 12th against Northern Arizona, the most intriguing competition that night will not be the game itself.
With all due respect to Jack Murphy, the ex-Memphis Tigers assistant who took over the NAU program last April following a rocky 5-24 campaign under interim coach Dave Brown, merely keeping his Lumberjacks within shouting distance against a deep and talented UNLV team would probably be viewed as a moral victory.
Truth be told, the competition that many will be keeping their eyes on that night will be the ongoing battle for minutes – and possibly a bigger role down the road in the Runnin’ Rebels’ rotation – between veteran big men Quintrell Thomas and Carlos Lopez.
Rewind to last season.
With newcomer Mike Moser quickly applying a stranglehold on the power forward spot in UNLV’s lineup, the lone question mark left to answer was “who is going to step forward and claim the starting center position?”
Many assumed it would be Thomas, the former Kansas transfer. After all, Thomas, despite playing just over 15 minutes per game during the 2010-11 season, emerged as the most productive of UNLV’s big men, averaging 6.7 points and 5.2 rebounds during Lon Kruger’s last season as the Rebels’ head coach.
Some, on the other hand, hoped 6’-11” Findlay Prep product Carlos Lopez – the player largely regarded at the time as having the most upside of any of the Rebels’ big men – would at long last translate his big time potential into big time production, and seize the final spot in UNLV’s starting five.
Therefore, it came as a surprise to many when the player who ultimately took the position and ran with it was the most maligned, least productive big man of the bunch, Brice Massamba.
Massamba, despite averaging a mere 3.3 points and 2.2 rebounds as a junior the season prior, went on to start in all 34 games he played in as a senior, earning nearly twice as many minutes as either Thomas or Lopez in Dave Rice’s first season as UNLV’s head man.
Once assumed to be the big men most likely to battle it out for the lion’s share of the minutes at the 5-spot, Thomas and Lopez instead found themselves often sharing time together on UNLV’s bench.
Fast forward to this season.
With Pitt transfer and ex-McDonald’s All-American Khem Birch not eligible until after the first semester of the school year, Thomas and Lopez are likely competing with one another for an opening game spot in UNLV’s starting lineup.
Even more importantly, though, Thomas and Lopez could be auditioning for a spot in Dave Rice’s regular rotation once Birch becomes eligible in January.
Birch’s size, athleticism, and shot blocking prowess will almost certainly earn him major minutes from the moment he suits up for the Runnin’ Rebels. And barring injury, the two forward spots in Dave Rice’s lineup will be locked down by All-American candidate Moser, and yet another former McDonald’s All-American in highly touted incoming freshman Anthony Bennett.
In all likelihood, whoever emerges between Thomas and Lopez during the non-conference portion of the schedule could be the one who finds himself playing key minutes as the Runnin’ Rebels head into Mountain West Conference play.
Conversely, given the significant upgrade in talent on UNLV’s roster, especially along its frontline, whoever comes in second could find playing time – especially as March Madness rolls around – difficult to come by.
During UNLV’s recent four game tour of Canada, Rebel fans were given a sneak peek into what to possibly expect out of Thomas and Lopez come November.
Lopez, the more skilled offensive player of the two, averaged 9.5 points per game while shooting a team high 64% from the field. Thomas, a better rebounder and defender than Lopez, averaged 5.8 points per while leading the Rebels in rebounds per minutes during the trip.
With the 2012-13 season fast approaching, so too is round 2 of the unofficial Thomas vs. Lopez battle.
To the victor will go the spoils...and the playing time.