Mike Moser is UNLV's X factor

LAS VEGAS -- UNLV coach Dave Rice looked at the stat sheet Wednesday and immediately thought of Dec. 9.

Three months ago, in a victory at Cal, Runnin’ Rebels forward Mike Moser had suffered one of the more gruesome injuries Rice had ever witnessed, a dislocated elbow that left Moser unable to extend his arm for nearly a month.

All of a sudden, a preseason All-American who had opened his junior season on magazine covers was on the end of UNLV’s bench in street clothes, wondering if his career would ever be the same.

“Dec. 9 was a difficult day for all of us,” Rice said. “I wasn’t sure if Mike would play for us again.”

That’s why Rice couldn’t help but smile as he glanced at the box score from Wednesday’s 72-56 victory over Air Force in the opening round of the Mountain West Conference tournament. Now back in the starting lineup, Moser snared 10 rebounds and scored nine points in a victory that propelled the Rebels into Friday’s semifinal against Colorado State.

“I feel like I’m getting back into a flow, back into a rhythm,” said Moser, who missed seven games because of his injury and has been less than 100 percent the past two months.

“My injury set us back. It kept us from peaking. This tournament is a chance for us to figure out exactly who we are.”

Indeed, Moser is the X factor for the Runnin’ Rebels, the difference between first-weekend loss in the NCAA tournament and a trip to the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight.

That was evident Wednesday.

Anthony Bennett finished with a game-high 23 points and Bryce Dejean-Jones added 12, but it was the tone Moser set with his energy and leadership that energized UNLV the most.

“To look at his elbow on Dec. 9 and then see him playing like that out there today,” Rice said. “It’s unbelievable.”

Rice said Moser still isn’t 100 percent. He said he can’t extend his reach on rebounds as he did in the past, and often has trouble finishing plays above the rim. But that's certainly a far cry from where he was back in January, when Moser begged his way back onto the court before he was ready.

“I was playing one-handed, in a sense,” Moser told ESPN.com Wednesday. “I couldn’t even catch the ball. I didn’t want to stick my hand into tussles or go get rebounds, like I used to. It was really tough. But I just really, really wanted to play.”

Moser said the “mental hurdle” was the toughest obstacle he faced in his recovery. He’d lost the confidence and aggression that had made him such a force as a sophomore, when he averaged 14 points and 10.5 rebounds.

“I was remembering all the things I did before I got hurt, and my injury wasn’t allowing me to those things anymore,” he said. “I was wearing this big sleeve over my elbow, and it was as a reminder that I was injured. Once I took that off, things started to change.”

In his first 13 games back, Moser scored in double figures only once and had just one game in which he snared double-digit rebounds. In his past five games, though, Moser is averaging 11.6 points and 8.2 boards.

Rice recently inserted Moser back into the starting lineup alongside Bennett, a national freshman-of-the-year candidate who averages 15.9 points. Mix in forward Khem Birch -- the MWC Defensive Player of the Year -- off the bench, and UNLV’s frontcourt becomes one of the best in the country.

Rice said Moser’s leadership and ability to push the ball in transition makes UNLV a more cohesive unit. Moser is just thankful to be able to make an impact again.

“It’s been a test, it’s been trying,” Moser said of his junior campaign. “There were times we lost a couple of games I thought we could’ve won if I would’ve been able to contribute more.

“But overall, this season has still been a blast. It’s never not been fun. That’s because of my teammates. I can’t wait to keep it rolling.”

As excited as they are about the present, UNLV fans have been buzzing lately about Moser’s future with the program.

The speculation is that Moser will leave UNLV one year early and enter the NBA draft. Moser has been in college four years now. He played sparingly as a freshman at UCLA and then sat out a season after transferring to UNLV. He isn’t getting any younger. It might be time for a new challenge.

“I’ve definitely got a decision to make,” Moser said. “It’s something I think about, just because of how the season went. I was a preseason All-American and I got hurt. It makes you re-evaluate things.

“Who knows, though? The season isn’t over. We’ve got a chance to do some really special things before the end of the season. We’re just now getting back to who we are.”

Kind of like Mike Moser.