Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, Dec. 10, 2010 | 2:15 a.m.
UNLV vs. Louisville
UNLV Rebels (9-0) vs. Louisville Cardinals (7-0)
Where: KFC Yum! Center (Cap. 22,000)
When: 9 a.m.
Coaches: Lon Kruger is 146-62 in his seven seasons at UNLV and 464-295 in 25 overall seasons; Rick Pitino is 227-86 in his 10 seasons at Louisville and 579-210 in 25 overall seasons.
Series: Tied, 5-5
Last time: UNLV won, 76-71, in Las Vegas on Nov. 28, 2009.
TV/Radio:ESPNU/ESPN Radio 1100 AM/98.9 FM
G Oscar Bellfield (6-2, 185, Jr.) 12.1 ppg, 4.1 apg, 2.7 rpg.
G Anthony Marshall (6-3, 200, So.) 9.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.0 apg.
G Derrick Jasper (6-6, 215, Sr.) 9.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg.
F Chace Stanback (6-8, 210, Jr.) 14.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg.
F Quintrell Thomas (6-8, 245, So.) 6.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg.
Bench: G Tre'Von Willis (6-4, 195, Sr.) 9.6 ppg, 3.0 apg, 2.9 rpg; F Brice Massamba (6-10, 240, Jr.) 5.6 ppg, 2.1 rpg; G Justin Hawkins (6-3, 190, So.) 5.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg; F Carlos Lopez (6-11, 215, Fr.) 5.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg; G-F Karam Mashour (6-6, 200, Fr.) 3.8 ppg.
What to watch: The Rebels have proven in almost every game this season that they're capable of starting fast, but can they finish in Louisville better than they have in their last two outings? UNLV has gotten a bit sloppy on the defensive end in each instance, allowing 45 second half points to both UNR on Saturday and Boise State on Wednesday.
G Preston Knowles (6-1, 195, Sr.) 11.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg
G Mike Marra (6-5, 200, So.) 11.6 ppg, 3.4 apg, 3.1 rpg.
G Peyton Siva (5-11, 175, So.) 11.1 ppg, 4.0 apg, 3.0 rpg.
F Terrence Jennings (6-10, 230, Jr.) 11.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.0 bpg.
F Rakeem Buckles (6-8, 210, So.) 9.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 2.0 apg.
Bench: G Chris Smith (6-2, 200, Jr.) 7.1 ppg, 3.0 rpg; C Gorgui Dieng (6-10, 215, Fr.) 5.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg; G Elisha Justice (5-10, 180, Fr.) 5.9 ppg, 2.3 apg, 2.1 rpg; F George Goode (6-8, 230, Jr.) 3.0 ppg; F Stephan Van Treese (6-9, 220, So.) 2.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg..
What to watch: Louisville's top spark plug is sophomore point guard Peyton Siva, who was flustered last year in the loss at UNLV, finishing with just one assist and three turnovers in 16 minutes. How will he fare this time around? He's more capable than anyone on the Cardinals' roster of breaking down the Rebels' heavy pressure defense.
In the first three installments of the current hoops series between UNLV and Louisville, the Rebels have used the match-up against one of the Big East's power programs as a measuring stick for where they're at heading into Mountain West play.
This time around, the roles have flipped.
Both are undefeated, with the Rebels at 9-0 and the Cardinals 7-0, and both are ranked in the AP Top 25 poll.
But No. 20 UNLV has traveled the tougher road to get to Saturday's 9 a.m. showdown in the beautiful, brand new 22,000-seat KFC Yum! Center in downtown Louisville.
"We're playing decent teams, but we're blowing everybody out," UL senior guard Preston Knowles told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "We've been able to win big. Now we want to play a great team and see where we're at."
After facing then-No. 16 Butler — now 4-4 — to open the season, No. 24 UL has beaten up on six non-marquee opponents with a combined record of 21-27. All of those games have been played on the Cards' home floor, and they won't leave the state of Kentucky until Jan. 9 in Big East play.
Whether he's sincere or just trying to heighten his team's focus, Louisville coach Rick Pitino has been beyond complimentary of the Rebels leading up to the contest. The 10th-year Cardinals boss this week called them the best team he's seen this season.
The high praise is nothing new for Pitino, who after last season's 76-71 UNLV victory over Louisville at the Thomas & Mack Center called the Rebels one of the top defensive teams in the country.
But focusing on UNLV should be no problem for Louisville, which has seen the tables turn quite dramatically during the current four-year series.
After winning handily at the Mack in 2007, 68-48, the Cards welcomed the Rebels, who were 13-point underdogs, into Freedom Hall on New Year's Eve in 2008. UNLV got off to a fast start, then held off a furious UL rally, prevailing 56-55 on then-freshman Oscar Bellfield's awkward game-winner over Samardo Samuels. That Louisville team went on to earn a berth in the Elite Eight.
Last season's 76-71 final score didn't truly tell how lopsided of a game it was, as then-No. 16 Louisville again dug itself a big hole early. Down a bit on talent and experience, the Cards were bounced in the first round after squeaking into the NCAA tournament field with a good run late in the year.
Now, the Rebels are battle-tested and could enter this year's meeting as the favorite, while the young Cardinals have slowly built up some confidence while traversing a more friendly schedule.
"When you look at their schedule and you talk about pointing to this one to see just where they're at at this time of the year, I guess it's nice in a respectful way," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "But still, we better get ready, because they're going to bring everything they've got."
Despite being picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big East field before the season, Louisville has shown some spunk behind its young up-and-comers so far.
The Cardinals feature four players averaging at least 11 points per game, including all three members of its starting backcourt. Senior Preston Knowles is no stranger to the UNLV series, having hit a trio of 3-pointers two years ago to help spur Louisville's second half surge. Speedy 5-foot-11 sophomore Peyton Siva, a former McDonald's All-American, struggled mightily against UNLV last season with just one assist and three turnovers against the Rebels' pressure defense but enters Saturday's game averaging a team-high four assists per game.
Up front, the duo of junior Terrence Jennings and sophomore Rakeem Buckles headlines what is likely the most athletic frontcourt the Rebels have yet to face. They're averaging a combined 18.8 points and 15 rebounds per game, while Jennings has blocked 21 shots in seven games.
Like UNLV, Louisville will pressure and trap plenty on defense and likes to play at an up-and-down pace. The Cardinals have relied heavily on the 3-pointer so far, hoisting a whopping 26.7 per game. That includes chucking 36 of them in Wednesday's 61-35 victory over San Francisco.
Most of UNLV's focus in preparing for the trip, though, centers on correcting what went wrong in Wednesday's 75-72 win at the Orleans Arena against Boise State. The Rebels eked away from the Broncos after leading by 15 points with 3:32 left to play.
"It was definitely a bitter taste," senior guard Derrick Jasper said of the postgame sentiment. "We knew we could play much better basketball. We kind of took it as a loss. We've got to play a lot better defensively, and I think we'll be up for the challenge on Saturday."
One drill of note from Thursday's heated practice came early in the session, as the Rebels repeatedly went 5-on-5, having to defend out the entire shot clock against the scout team.
It was not only a means of hammering home consistent effort on the defensive end that several times went missing late in their wins against Nevada-Reno and Boise State.
But it's also in preparation for a Louisville team that, like UNLV, will look to play at a chaotic pace on Saturday.
"Generally, we've done a good job in the full-court, when we can steal it and dictate, but we're maybe not sustaining it as well in the half-court," Kruger said. "You've got to be able to combine them both."
Three at the buzzer
1) This will mark the first trip back to the state of Kentucky for Jasper, who played at UK down the road in Lexington for two years before transferring closer to home.
He's faced Louisville three times, totaling 12 points and 10 rebounds against the Cards in two games while at Kentucky, then finishing with 12 points, four boards and two assists in last year's game at the Mack.
Jasper, who said he isn't thinking much about the angle of his first trip back, will have some remaining friends at UK in attendance on Saturday.
2) Two years later, Bellfield won't call his game-winner two years ago at UL lucky.
"I wouldn't say lucky. I hit a few shots like that," he said with a smile. "If it's luck, it's luck. I don't feel it was. It just worked out perfect, I guess."
Lucky or not, Bellfield has a reputation to uphold against Louisville.
In that game in the final hours of 2008, his heroics masked a rough shooting night and six-turnover performance.
Last season, though, he scored a team-high 17 points in the Rebels' win, adding four assists.
3) The early start on Saturday — 9 a.m. in Las Vegas — won't be an issue, both Kruger and his players said.
Kruger noted that UNLV is used to going early during the season, when the team, while at home, practices at 10 a.m. on Fridays with school not in session.
Jasper then pointed out the team's 6 a.m. wake-up time during the summer for workouts.
Still, whether it forces UNLV to look sluggish early will be interesting to watch, as their earliest tip-off to this point in the season was at 4 p.m. local time against Wisconsin on Nov. 20.