UNLV basketball:

Return of the Mack: Rebels back at home to face ‘annoying’ Panthers

UNLV’s first game at the Thomas & Mack Center in nearly three weeks features a matchup that’s less than advantageous for the home team

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Steve Marcus

UNLV coach Dave Rice watches the Rebel’s game against the La Verne Leopards at the Orleans Arena Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012.

With Northern Iowa holding court in the Mendenhall Center on Tuesday while UNLV awaited its flight back to Las Vegas after Monday’s 62-60 victory at UTEP, it was difficult to tell which one was the home team.

It’s tough to say how much the quick turnaround will affect the 21st-ranked Rebels (9-1), who haven’t played a game at the Thomas & Mack Center in nearly three weeks. What’s more certain, though, is when they take the court at 7 p.m. on Time Warner Cable SportsNet to play the Panthers (6-4) the Rebels will do so knowing it’s probably not going to be a fun night.

“It’s an annoying team to play,” senior Quintrell Thomas said.

The reason for that starts with UNI’s style of play, a plodding attack that often tries to use up the clock at both ends of the floor. While not as slow as some other recent UNI teams, these Panthers are glacial compared to the Rebels.

Monday’s game at UTEP used 64 possessions, the fewest in any Rebels game this year. The Panthers have already played five games with fewer possessions than that, and their 51-46 loss to No. 5 Louisville featured 67. In other words, this game could probably be viewed at 1.5x speed without missing much, although that’s not how UNLV wants it to go.

“When the game slows down, it definitely doesn’t help us, especially with a lot of young guys and not being disciplined in the offense,” Thomas said.

That was a big problem down the stretch against the Miners. Luckily for UNLV another big issue in that game — trying to beat UTEP’s zone and junk defenses — probably won’t surface against UNI.

Panthers coach Ben Jacobson said his team has used “maybe five possessions of zone” defense all season. Jacobson usually doesn’t tailor his game plan to each opponent, focusing instead on executing what he wants UNI to do every game. And that does include some running.

“We’re trying to go up and down as well,” said senior guard Anthony James, who was a freshman when UNI knocked out UNLV in the Round of 64 at the 2010 NCAA Tournament. The Rebels’ Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins played in that game.

Just like UNLV, UNI wants to push the tempo after turnovers and defensive rebounds. The difference is the Panthers are comfortable pulling up and running their half-court sets if they don’t have a good shot in transition. UNLV is still figuring out that balance, though Jacobson said he understands why the Rebels are so eager to shoot quickly.

“From the time that ball comes off the rim to the time they get a quality shot at the other end is better than most of the other teams in the country,” he said. “… You can get back, but if you’re not back and defending immediately they’re going to get a good shot.”

UNLV can tilt the tempo to its advantage in a number of ways, one of which is by using its size to get established in the post and create opportunities for quick kick outs. Sophomore Khem Birch may see more minutes after making his season debut Monday and freshman Anthony Bennett figures to bounce back after a 2-for-9 shooting night in part because of the absence of a zone, though Jacobson knows he probably can’t guard Bennett one-on-one very much.

“He isn’t one of the top freshmen in the country,” Jacobson said, “he’s one of the top few players in the country.”

UNI will mostly guard Bennett with sophomore Seth Tuttle, the Panthers’ best offensive big, and Jake Koch, a senior who also played in that 2010 tournament game. Realistically, though, it’s going to take a team effort.

“We need to have a second line of defense ready,” Koch said.

Facing an athletic disadvantage at most spots on the court, UNI may rely not only on working the clock to keep the number of possessions low but also “the great equalizer” as Thomas called it: 3-pointers. Every Panther who has appeared in at least half the games has at least one made 3-pointer and six guys have at least 15 3-point attempts, the same number as the Rebels.

That means both teams are going to emphasize closing out with their hands up because everybody from the point guards to the centers can shoot from distance. Three years ago the Rebels didn’t do that well enough in the final seconds, giving up a game-winning 3-pointer to Ali Farokhmanesh.

A lot has changed since then, but one thing remains the same: the Panthers will probably frustrate the Rebels.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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  1. According to DirectTV.com, the game tonight is on channel 691.

  2. For Cox cable it's channel 66.

  3. Getting better each game. Rebels will be a tough out in NCAA if they play with half a brain. Reinhardts passing and bill iq is almost as good as mine . :)