UNC-UNLV in Vegas final: What to watch

LAS VEGAS --During halftime of Friday night’s blowout win over South Carolina, UNC coach Roy Williams said he was discouraged because his team hadn’t rebounded very well, and his players weren’t very “alert.”

“Somebody said, well, maybe we were looking ahead … but I know if we play [Saturday] night like we played tonight, we are not going to win this game. So we have to play better.”

Indeed, undefeated UNLV (6-0) brings an up-tempo style of play to tonight’s 10:30 p.m. EST Las Vegas Invitational championship game at Orleans Arena -- which is just a few miles from its home gym, the Thomas & Mack Center. New coach Dave Rice’s team is averaging more than 10 steals per games, and knows it faces its toughest challenge yet in playing the top team in the nation.

“It is something as players, as coaches, as fans we look forward to,” Rice told The Las Vegas Sun. “We know what a difficult challenge it will be. We look forward to see how we match up.”

What to watch:

1. UNC point guard Kendall Marshall

The way the sophomore is dishing out assists is getting downright ridiculous, as he’s recorded at least 14 in three of the past four games. He now has 57 assists and only 13 turnovers in five games this season, a ratio of 4.38-to-1.

The school ratio record for a season is 3.49, set by Ty Lawson in 2008-09. A mark to watch tonight: total assists in three consecutive games. Ed Cota currently holds that one, with 41 total against Appalachian State, at N.C. State and vs. Florida State in 1997-98 -- but maybe not for long.

2. UNLV small forward Mike Moser

The Rebels returned four starters from the team that finished 24-9 last season, but the addition of Moser -- who sat out last season as per NCAA rules, after transferring from UCLA -- has been a huge boost. Not only does he lead the team in scoring, he entered Friday night’s victory over Southern California ranked third nationally in rebounding (13 per game).

Considering the Tar Heels were outrebounded by the Gamecocks -- something Williams never, ever likes -- look for someone to be trying to box out the 6-foot-8 sophomore at all times.

3. The Tar Heels’ defense

After forcing 11 turnovers in the first eight minutes, UNC got sloppy, allowing the Gamecocks to stick around. Williams was more pleased with his team’s defense in the second half, when South Carolina made only 36.7 percent of its shots. But he’ll be looking for a more consistent effort tonight.

“We’re nowhere near where we want to be,’’ Marshall said. “We can hang our hat on things that we do at times. We go 4- to, maybe, 10-minute spans where we play great defensively, then we may have 3- or 4-minute spans where we break down, give up open shots, second chances. And it’s early, which is a positive thing. We’ve got plenty of time this season where we want to get better each and every day.”

Robbi Pickeral can be reached at bylinerp@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @bylinerp.