Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 | 2 a.m.
- After going 1-1 last week, Rebels fall out of Associated Press poll
- UNLV Leftovers: Season could hinge on results of next two games
- Rebels fit into some different roles and fend off Air Force in overtime
- BOX SCORE: UNLV 76, Air Force 71
- Tale of UNLV’s league-opening loss can’t be told by one number alone
- Mountain Best: Counting down the league’s 10 best nonconference victories
- All UNLV men's basketball coverage
It’s very possible the eventual regular season Mountain West champ will not be in Viejas Arena on Wednesday night when UNLV (14-3, 1-1) plays at No. 15 San Diego State (14-2, 2-0). But for the two teams that have done battle in the public conscious for the entire offseason and probably garnered more headlines than the rest of the league combined, it may feel like that’s what’s at stake when they tip off at 7:15 p.m. on CBS Sports Network.
Luckily for the Rebels, it’s too early to declare anything and there’s still time to try to solve the road issues that have led to a 2-6 record under coach Dave Rice against conference opponents away from the Thomas & Mack Center. And while going to Viejas to face an Aztecs team that’s undefeated indoors in the continental United States may not be the ideal situation to find answers, the Rebels have no choice. That’s what’s up next.
“We know this will be our greatest challenge to date,” Rice said.
There are a lot of similarities between the Rebels and Aztecs. For starters just look at the most recent games: a pair of home overtime victories that featured star players (UNLV’s Anthony Bennett and SDSU’s Chase Tapley) overcoming illness for stellar performances.
The Aztecs will get more of a pass for needing the extra session because their opponent, Colorado State, which hosts UNLV on Saturday, was better than UNLV’s, Air Force. That will hardly matter when the Rebels travel to San Diego, though. One game doesn’t predict the next in this league.
“It’s going to be a battle in the Mountain West, and you’ve got to just take each game one by one,” UNLV senior Anthony Marshall said.
More similarities between the teams: According to kenpom.com, both rank similarly in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, as well as effective field-goal percentage defense, in which they rank 16th (SDSU) and 17th (UNLV) in the country. The main statistical advantages for either team go to the Aztecs, who are much better at keeping their opponents off the free-throw line and not allowing steals.
Of course, looking only at the numbers ignores the larger picture, which includes Bennett. While clearly less than 100 percent against Air Force, Bennett still finished with 22 points and 16 rebounds.
“You’ve got to deal with him while you’re worrying about the rest of them,” said SDSU coach Steve Fisher, who didn’t say how he planned to guard Bennett.
Fisher’s scheme will almost assuredly include some double teams, most likely on the catch in the post. The Aztecs could also try to front Bennett, though that leaves a defense vulnerable over the top.
The paint seems to be the only place SDSU lags behind the conference’s other top contenders, which all have a dominant big man — Bennett, Colorado State’s Colton Iverson, New Mexico’s Alex Kirk and Wyoming’s Leonard Washington. What the Aztecs have that no one else does, though, is junior Jamaal Franklin, who was a trending topic on Twitter last Wednesday because of a dunk against Fresno State that saw Franklin throw an alley-oop to himself from behind the three-point line.
“Wow,” UNLV junior Mike Moser said. “That’s it. One word: wow.”
Franklin isn’t a particularly efficient scorer, but he’ll do damage by the time the game is done, and as a 6-foot-5 wing player, Franklin leads the team with 10.3 rebounds per game. Moser said the only way to do anything about that is to box out, which sounds simple until you consider that’s what everyone else has tried to do, too.
Depending on what the decision-makers at San Diego State and the Mountain West do in the next few weeks, this could be one of the last chapters in a suddenly great rivalry or, more likely, just the most recent challenge in a series that has a bright future. It’s already the continuation of long-standing rivalries for West Coast guys such as Marshall and Justin Hawkins.
“We grew up playing with and against them,” Marshall said of the Aztecs. “We’re like brothers off the court, but on the court, we hate each other.”
This has been a marquee matchup and appointment viewing for months. As the game approaches, the onus is on the Rebels to hold up their end, get tough on the road and grab the first notable victory of their season.