Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023 | 2 a.m.
David Muoka knows what he has to do in order to get back on the court.
“I know they want me to play hard,” he said.
It sounds simple enough, but it’s proving to be a difficult task for UNLV’s senior center.
Muoka started the first 17 games of the season and appeared to be having a strong campaign, anchoring UNLV’s rejuvenated defense. Then, the team slumped to begin conference play, and Kevin Kruger moved Muoka to the bench in favor of senior forward Victor Iwuakor.
Muoka has mostly been reduced to an observer’s role over the past six games as his minutes have dwindled.
The root of the problem, according to Kruger, is intangible. Iwuakor is a more visibly energetic player, and that’s what the coaching staff wants in the middle of the lineup.
“We’re trying to get a spark back at that spot,” Kruger said. “It’s a critical spot.”
The results of the switch have been a net negative for the team, underscoring just how important it is for Muoka to get back in Kruger’s good graces.
In Mountain West play, UNLV has struggled with Iwuakor on the floor, while Muoka is posting better advanced metrics across the board. Muoka bests Iwuakor in offensive rating (114.2 to 104.5), defensive rating (103.7 to 109.4) and plus/minus per 40 (+2.0 to -3.4).
UNLV has gone 3-3 since swapping centers, including a shocking home loss to Fresno State on Friday. In that game, the Scarlet and Gray were outscored by eight points in the 20 minutes Iwuakor was on the floor; in Muoka’s 11 minutes, UNLV outscored Fresno State by seven points.
Muoka posted five points, four rebounds and two blocks in his limited time. But box scores and advanced stats won’t win his job back, and Muoka knows it. He has to play harder, up the intensity and prove to Kruger that he really wants it.
After Monday’s practice, Muoka detailed the path to playing time that has been laid out by the coaching staff.
“Every time I step out onto the floor, just being intense, playing with high energy, being an anchor on defense,” Muoka said. “And offensively doing what I can to help the guys out; offensive rebounds, putbacks, post-ups, trying to make the right play.”
Iwaukor has logged 234 minutes in conference play, dwarfing Muoka’s 138 minutes.
Muoka, who is in his second year with the program after transferring from Lamar, said it hasn’t been easy to see his role reduced.
“Obviously, challenges come,” Muoka said. “Obviously, there’s something I could be doing better, so I’m trying to do everything I can do so that I have no excuse not to be on the floor at all times. Yeah, just playing hard.”
UNLV needs Muoka to figure it out. The performance of the starting lineup has cratered since the switch, going from a net rating of +25.5 in 44 minutes with Muoka to a -29.1 in 47 minutes with Iwuakor.
While Kruger likes Iwuakor’s boundless energy and ability to move laterally, Muoka is the only player on the roster capable of protecting the rim. In conference play, Muoka sports a block rate of 13.2%, compared to Iwuakor’s 7.8%.
Kruger said he has seen in improvement in Muoka’s play recently, and wants him to continue working his way back to full-time status.
“He had a great start to the season of course, especially on the defensive end,” Kruger said. “He hit a little bit of a rut, but it’s good to see him having an impact again.
“I think he’s getting much closer,” he continued. “He’s getting back to being assertive. He had a handful of games there early where he was assertive. He blocked shots, he rebounded, he opened things up for us offensively, whether it be screening and diving to the rim or diving baseline and being a consistent rim threat. He opened up a lot of things for us offensively. He’s getting much closer to being back to his older self.”
Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.