Shortly after announcing his decision to transfer from UCLA to UNLV two summers ago, Mike Moser was teased during a pickup game in Los Angeles.
“A guy pointed at me and said, ‘He only averaged 4.3 minutes at UCLA,’” Moser recalled Thursday. “It definitely gave me some motivation.”
And a new jersey number.
Moser wears No. 43 for UNLV, and these days, opponents know better than to taunt the 6-foot-8 forward. Moser averages 14.5 points and 11.5 rebounds for the Runnin’ Rebels, who host San Diego State in what could be the Mountain West Conference game of the year Saturday in Las Vegas.
The Aztecs are 6-1 in league play. UNLV is 5-2 and lost to San Diego State 69-67 on Jan. 14.
Moser, a redshirt sophomore, spoke about the game -- and his breakout season -- with ESPN.com during a phone interview following Thursday’s practice.
What’s the main thing you’re looking forward to the most about playing San Diego State?
Mike Moser: I’m definitely excited to get back at them. We’re back in first place, so we control our own destiny in the conference. That’s probably the biggest motivation for me, personally. It’s good to finally have a home game after such a long stretch of being away. We’ve had a week to rest and get healthy, so we should be ready.
What makes San Diego State so tough?
MM: Their personnel. They have shooters that can stretch the floor and guys that can really get into the paint and attack the basket. They’re so versatile as a team. They play with a center, two wings and two guards, so they’re fast. They get up and down the court just like we do. We match up really well.
Is there something you can do better than last time?
MM: We played pretty well as a whole. Defensively, as far as contesting 3-point shots, we need to do better. They made a lot of 3’s that really hurt us. I didn’t have one of my better games.
What’s the overall mind state of this team right now.
MM: We’re less than satisfied. We just lost a game we should’ve won (at Wyoming). There have been some other games we should’ve won, too. But at the same time, expectations weren’t as high as what we’re doing right now. We’ve shocked people a little bit. But I think we have so much more to do. We have seven more games in conference and then the conference tournament. There’s a lot we can accomplish, but it all starts with winning the game this Saturday. That will keep us on the path to keeping us feeling like we’re accomplishing some things.
How would you characterize your year so far?
MM: I’m definitely ecstatic about how things have ended up here. I get along with my teammates great. I feel like my year has gone fairly well. There are definitely some things to improve on, but overall, just being thrown into the system and “getting it” right away has been a good feeling.
Are you surprised that you’ve achieved a high level of success so quickly?
MM: Even when I wasn’t playing much at UCLA and when I was sitting out here during my transfer year, I never really stopped playing basketball. So it hasn’t really surprised me, because I never lost my feel for the game. I was always in the gym, always working. I was always confident that I could step in and play a role, whether it was scoring or defending.
A lot has been made about how many former UCLA players are doing well at other schools, guys like you and Chace Stanback (also at UNLV) and Matt Carlino (BYU) and Drew Gordon (New Mexico). What’s your take on that?
MM: It’s almost a compliment to UCLA. Their ability to get great players is phenomenal. For me personally, I just had trouble fitting into a system that really wasn’t comfortable to me. It’s tough for the coach sometimes, too. They can only play five players. When you bring in so many talented kids, everyone is going to want an opportunity. Everyone feels like they should play but the opportunities just aren’t there. Sometimes it’s just best to go elsewhere where you can get that opportunity instead of sticking it out and fighting for a spot. Everybody just has to decide that on their own.
What did you want to do more of at UCLA that you weren’t getting to do?
MM: Everything I’m doing here. Being able to rebound the ball and take it the length of the court or make a play for someone else. Handle the ball on the wing. A bunch of things like that.
After more than a year in Las Vegas, how have you been able to block out the distractions that come along with living in that city and focus on playing basketball?
MM: It just depends on the person. Las Vegas can really change you. If you’re all about school and staying in the gym and doing the right things, the temptations of Las Vegas won’t get to you as much. But if you like go out and do certain things that can get into the way of your goals, this may not be the place for you.
I hear you’re the team prankster. Have you done anything memorable lately?
MM: The one everyone still talks about about the milk story. I took a bowl of milk and put it under Chace Stanback’s bed until it got all old and nasty. He didn’t find it for about two weeks. The smell started seeping out of his room into the living room. It got so bad that he couldn’t sleep at night. I finally had to tell him what it was.