UNLV basketball:

Take 5: Keys to the Rebels bouncing back at home against Air Force

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV guard Justin Hawkins, left, talks to Bryce Dejean-Jones after Dejean-Jones was fouled during their game against New Mexico Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 at The Pit in Albuquerque. New Mexico won the game 65-60.

In between what may be the three toughest games of the entire conference season, No. 24 UNLV (13-3) returns home Saturday night at 7 to play Air Force (9-5) on Time Warner Cable SportsNet.

The Rebels’ had their chances in a 65-60 loss at New Mexico on Wednesday, and next week in road games at San Diego State and Colorado State they will likely have more opportunities to win or lose a game in the final minutes. This one should be a little different, as long as UNLV keeps focused.

The Falcons are traditionally a difficult matchup because of their offensive sets, which include a lot of backdoor cuts, though that may be a little different under first-year coach Dave Pilipovich. Basically, this is the type of game UNLV needs to make easy on itself because of how many more difficult ones still await.

Here are five ways the Rebels can do that:

1. Keep the loss in perspective

UNLV hasn’t opened conference play with a victory since the 2008-09 season, and you have to go back another year for its last league-opening win on the road.

Not only that, New Mexico is really good. The Lobos don’t have the same type of talent as UNLV, but they’ve been playing together longer — center Alex Kirk is the only new guy to the rotation — and they enjoy a nice home court advantage.

And as for the fouls, New Mexico ranks second in the country in free throw attempts per field goal attempt, according to kenpom.com, so it’s not like that came out of nowhere.

That was never a game the Rebels could chalk up as a victory and it’s important to remember the regular-season league champ this year will likely have at least three losses.

2. Prepare for more double teams

This first game was a special circumstance because New Mexico coach Steve Alford had a full eight days in between games to prepare for the Rebels. Obviously UNLV’s other opponents won’t have that long, but the game tape will reinforce what they likely already planned to do: double-team Anthony Bennett.

The freshman forward’s foul trouble was a big factor in keeping him relatively quiet — 12 points and six rebounds — and it also had a lot to do with the Lobos’ guards or a second forward doubling down on almost every entry pass. There were times when Bennett did really well passing out of that and finding open shooters, but in other instances he looked the most uncomfortable he’s been since UTEP bullied him all game.

Besides just getting more comfortable with two guys hounding him — something most players of his caliber get used to in high school, but most guys don’t play at Findlay Prep — Bennett can work on where his kick outs are going.

Most of the time when he catches an entry pass in the post and gets double teamed, he passes right back to the guy who had the ball. With practice, Bennett could work on instead finding the teammate, who will usually be at the top of the key or the opposite block, whose defender has left to help cover Bennett. That skips a step as the Rebels try to swing the ball around while the defense scrambles back to position.

The Rebels could also try re-posting Bennett, where he catches a pass, waits for the double team before passing back out, then immediately gets another entry pass while the second defender was running back to his spot. That occasionally can catch a defense off guard.

3. Get off to a good start

There’s no better way to put the New Mexico game out of their minds than to start the Air Force game strong and get the home crowd excited.

The Rebels in the Rice era have always been vastly different at home than the road so this may be more of an expectation than a goal, but it’s still important. UNLV wants to feel good about itself after the loss and this is the best way to go about it.

4. Work Moser into the regular rotation

Junior forward Mike Moser said Tuesday he felt better than before he suffered a dislocated elbow. While he may believe that, it’s one thing to feel better and it’s another to play up to that standard.

In two games since the Dec. 9 game at Cal, Moser’s a total of 2-for-7 shooting and he’s averaging 13 minutes per game. While the on-court performance may not warrant it, Moser’s best route to getting back to his old self is more time on the court, where he can work into a rhythm. It’s difficult for anybody to produce while playing in spurts and Moser is no different.

If the Rebels are going to contend for the league crown they will need Moser filling a significant role. The sooner he can do that, the better.

5. Win the final five minutes

No matter what the score is going into the final minutes — up big, down big or somewhere in between — it should be a focus to win at the end. This isn’t a different from the goals in every game, but after a struggling in a late-game situation there should be an extra emphasis on how the final possessions play out.

Players often talk about playing a full 40 minutes no matter what the score, and the Rebels are no exception. They mention it all the time, and this is a chance to put that on the court.

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

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  1. One of the things I noticed New Mexico doing against Bennett was not double teaming him right away, but waiting until he started dribbling. Bennett appeared a little confused by this as it seamed he was waiting for the double team to come right when he got the ball. When it didn't come right away, he started dribbling and then got swarmed by the Lobos. At the beginning of the 2nd half when he scored 8 points in the first couple of minutes he shot the ball before he dribbled, therefore there was no double team.

    The good teams are going to mix it up on how they defend Bennett (double team right away, or wait for him to start dribbling before they double). Bennett seems to have a high basketball IQ and with a little more experience, I think he will start to make opponents pay with his passing and decision making. Just my 2 cents...

  2. To me our defense is a large concern. We rarely dictate tempo through our defense. New Mexico was alllowed to run their sets with little to no ball pressure and catch the ball in easy scoring spots especially close to the basket. If we truly want to be the Runnin Rebels it must start on the defensive end taking teams out of what they want to do. We have the athleticism, the length, the depth and some solid shot blockers that can erase an occasional mistake. We have a team that would be perfect to execute this but for some reason this is not what we do. When we only score 60 points and are placed in a half court game, we are going to lose more games than we win.

  3. Excellent post, gumby, we seem to play great defense in all aspects save one...causing turnovers. As gumby rightly observes, we have the length and athleticism to wreak havoc on the defensive end, but for some reason don't do it. How many times do we see opposing teams' passes whizzing by our heads safely, drives me nuts. We need to challenge passing lanes more and TURN THE OTHER TEAM OVER. Do that, and you have a top defense in the nation. We guard like crazy for 32 seconds then foul or let an entry pass in the lane and it's all for nothing. You are right on, sir.

    To me, though, the even more pressing issue is the carelessness with the ball on offense, i.e., too many turnovers. Air Force is a team that will exploit that weakness, so be ready for another nail biter on Saturday imo.

  4. The loss to NM doesn't bother me, it's HOW they lost it. Aside from other issues:

    1. Turnovers
    2. Lack of a half court offense (or at least inconsistency)

    Taking care of the ball and knowing how/when to go to the basket are high school fundamentals. Not including prior year experience, this team is 16 games into the season...

  5. @yoeleven - I believe that issues 1 and 2 will be solved next year when they have a better point guard than Anthony Marshall. I think they will get better at 1 and 2 this year, but next year they will take some big strides.

    Keep in mind that five guys in the rotation were recruited by Kruger (Moser, Thomas, Lopez, Hawkins, and Marshall). And the other six guys were recruited by Rice (Bennett, Birch, Goodman, Reinhardt, Jones, and Morant). Also, the six new players brought in by Rice individually have less than 30 games of college experience.

    So, the fact that the Rebels are 13-3 at this point is pretty impressive. The five guys recruited by Kruger have had to play in a system they weren't recruited for, and the six new guys are inconsistent. Just give coach Dave Rice time and time for his players to develop in this system, and the Rebels will be scary good in my opinion.

  6. What??? "develop into this system" ??? what system? Rice has no system,period. You watch the half court offense and everyone just stands around there is hardly any movement in the Rebels half court offense. There is no system in Dave Rice coaching. If the athletic director would have hired the right coach instead of the BYU buddy of his, the Rebels would be dominating the MWC instead of finishing fourth.