Friday, Feb. 26, 2010 | 8 p.m.
UNLV vs. Air Force
UNLV Rebels (21-7, 9-5) vs. Air Force Falcons (9-17, 1-12)
Where: Clune Arena
When: 12:30 p.m.
Coaches: Lon Kruger is 133-60 in his six seasons at UNLV and 451-293 in 24 overall seasons; Jeff Reynolds is 35-52 in his three seasons at Air Force and 117-86 in seven overall seasons.
Series: UNLV leads 22-8
Last time: UNLV won, 60-50, on Jan. 26 in Las Vegas
Line: UNLV by 13
TV/Radio: The Mtn./ESPN Radio 1100-AM
G Oscar Bellfield (6-2, 180) 9.2 ppg, 4.5 apg, 2.5 rpg
G Anthony Marshall (6-3, 200) 5.0 ppg, 2.6 rpg
G Tre'Von Willis (6-4, 195) 17.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.5 apg
F Chace Stanback (6-8, 210) 10.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg
F Darris Santee (6-8, 225) 4.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg
Bench: F Brice Massamba (6-10, 240) 4.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg; G Justin Hawkins (6-3, 190) 3.5 ppg, 1.4 rpg; G Kendall Wallace (6-4, 190) 6.8 ppg, 1.7 rpg; G Steve Jones (6-1, 220) 1.6 ppg, 1.1 rpg.
What to watch: The Rebels forced TCU into 21 turnovers on Wednesday night, and UNLV's hounding defensive approach the last two games has helped atone for a recent 3-game skid. If the Rebels can turn stout defense into easy offense again, this could turn into a laugher.
G Evan Washington (6-4, 195) 10.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.1 apg
G Todd Fletcher (6-2, 180) 4.0 ppg, 1.4 rpg
G Michael Lyons (6-6, 192) 6.9 ppg, 3.0 rpg
F Grant Parker (6-7, 220) 13.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg
C Mike McLain (6-8, 235) 5.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg
Bench: F Tom Fow (6-6, 197) 8.9 ppg, 3.0 rpg; F Derek Brooks (6-5, 195) 4.2 ppg; G Mike Fitzgerald (6-6, 190) 3.8 ppg; F Taylor Broekhuis (6-10, 210) 3.2 ppg, 2.7 rpg; G Avery Merriex (6-3, 190) 2.4 ppg.
What to watch: Air Force's slowed-down pace is most effective when the Falcons are hitting shots, to boot. Against New Mexico last Saturday in a 59-56 heartbreaker, they were 21-of-41 from the floor. Against UNLV the first time around in a 60-50 loss, they shot a similar percentage and kept it close. Can they put together another scare towards the end of a lost season?
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — UNLV's series with Air Force may be weirder than that the Rebels have with any other team in the Mountain West Conference.
Traditionally low-scoring due to the Falcons' deliberate slow-it-down-until-you're-asleep style, the Rebels also have no idea what they might face on trips to Clune Arena.
Last year, it involved an Air Force student located behind one basket who would strip off his sweatsuit and shake himself around wearing nothing but a Speedo during UNLV free throw attempts.
"There was a guy mooning us every time if I remember right," said UNLV junior guard Tre'Von Willis, who actually missed a free throw at that end with the distraction in place. "It was a cool environment, though."
The environment, though, means next to nothing this time around, as the Rebels (21-7 overall, 9-5 MWC) do battle with the struggling Falcons (9-17, 1-12) on Saturday afternoon at 12:30 p.m. PST.
After acing the first two tests in a must-sweep four-game stretch to close out the regular season — a 70-39 blowout of Colorado State last Saturday followed by an 88-72 smashing of TCU on Wednesday — the room for error doesn't grow at all in the team's final regular season road game. UNLV is still trying to strengthen its NCAA tournament resumé, and has a chance to further capitalize on San Diego State's 82-68 loss on Wednesday night at No. 13 BYU.
And if history tells us anything, Air Force will do what it does best in an attempt to frustrate UNLV the same way it has in seemingly every recent meeting.
"They're a patient team, and we're a team that's used to forcing turnovers, getting into people and bothering them," Willis said. "You can't really bother a team that's comfortable running 5 seconds off the clock every (possession). That's why we need to stay focused."
In UNLV's two recent blowout triumphs, the Rebels have forced several turnovers right out of the gates and in turn converted those miscues into easy offense. On Wednesday, TCU committed seven of its 21 giveaways in the game's first four minutes.
Air Force doesn't wilt so easily.
In the last four meetings between the Rebels and Falcons, neither team has scored more than 60 points.
UNLV won all four of them, but none came easily.
Last season, in a 59-38 victory in Colorado Springs, the Rebels didn't shake free from the Falcons — who ended up winless in MWC play — until Kendall Wallace was able to hit an avalanche of 3-pointers. He hit a season-high five treys in that effort.
In the return game in Las Vegas, the Rebels prevailed on Senior Night, 46-43. The 46 points were the second-fewest scored in a winning effort in program history.
Last month, UNLV lost Derrick Jasper just before the half to a left knee injury, but ultimately pulled away for a 60-50 win.
"It's an adjustiment anytime you play Air Force," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "Any club who plays them knows that it's going to be a different pace and different mentality to the game.
"Typically, Air Force is a team that does a good job controlling the pace. That in itself lends for a lower score, and lower scores typically are closer scores."
However, Air Force has had a tough time closing out those closer games of late, with the shining example coming last Saturday, when Jeff Reynolds' club led in the final minute in The Pit in Albuquerque against No. 10 New Mexico. The Falcons wound up falling, 59-56.
In fact, since topping Wyoming at home on Jan. 30 — which was the program's first conference win since the 2007-08 season — the Falcons have dropped six straight. The most recent setback was a 64-53 loss at home to Utah on Wednesday night.
And while Air Force is sliding towards the finish line, UNLV has moved forward from its recent 3-game skid and is surging with a short-handed lineup.
Junior forward Matt Shaw, who sprained his left ankle in a freak pre-game accident last Wednesday at Utah, will miss his third straight game. The Rebels are, of course, also still without Jasper, who is likely to return along with Shaw from a partially torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee next Saturday afternoon in the regular season finale at home against Wyoming.
Senior Darris Santee will start in his place for the third game in a row, as Kruger and his staff have been quite encouraged by the activity and effectiveness he's shown when called upon of late.
He'll split minutes pretty evenly with sophomore Brice Massamba, who along with his 10 points on Wednesday added a career-high nine rebounds, including six on the offensive glass.
Wednesday was also the first time in a good while in which the Rebels' top two offensive threats — Willis (17.9 ppg) and sophomore forward Chace Stanback (10.1 ppg) — clicked simultaneously, as each tallied 16 points against the Horned Frogs.
Still, nothing is more important than defense on Saturday. That's not lost on anyone.
"I think the tougher thing is the mental (aspect)," Willis said. "Normally, guys don't want to defend for that long, but our mindset is really to take something from them. There's no other way for us other than to defend for 35 seconds every time, try to get the defensive rebounds and get some easy buckets on the other end.
"It seems like they almost beat us every time, so we're really just focused on us and what we need to do."