Rebels basketball:

UNLV and Boise State in similar situations near midpoint of league play

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Boise State head coach Leon Rice disagrees with an official’s call during their game against UNLV Tuesday, March 5, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV won the game 68-64.

They have won four of their last five games, which helps make up for some disappointing games as they attempt to make a push in the Mountain West and live up to preseason predictions that they would finish second in the league. And on Saturday they will play at UNLV.

Boise State and UNLV have a lot in common heading into Saturday’s 5 p.m. contest at the Thomas & Mack Center on CBS Sports Network. The two schools that tied for second in the media’s preseason poll are tied for fourth in the current standings at 5-3.

The Broncos, who are 15-6 overall, lost at home to Wyoming as a 10-point favorite on Jan. 11. Since then they’ve defeated three of the league’s bottom four teams and also won at UNR. The lone blemish in that stretch is a nine-point loss at New Mexico, the same place where UNLV sparked its mini-resurgence with an upset. Before that the Rebels also lost at home to a double-digit underdog and have made this current run mostly against the bottom of the league's standings.

“We both hit stretches during the first half of conference play where we didn’t play as well as we would have liked,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice.

San Diego State and New Mexico have one conference loss between them — courtesy of UNLV — so the rest of the league may be competing for third place or, at best, second. Saturday’s winner at the Mack will gain a big advantage over the loser in that particular race.

“I feel like if we win this game our chances are very high,” said junior Khem Birch. “I think people will start believing in us again.”

Birch said he was watching Tuesday’s New Mexico-Utah State game and the announcers called Boise State the third-best team in the league. Understandably, Birch feels different and just four days later he has the chance to prove it.

The Broncos use a small lineup with four and sometimes even five outside shooters on the floor at the same time. That creates a challenge defensively for Birch, who may have to spend some time guarding the perimeter. It also creates a great offensive opportunity for Birch and junior forward Roscoe Smith, who will have a size and rebounding advantage inside.

In conference games, Boise State has the league’s worst two-point percentage defense, per kenpom.com. The Broncos make up for some of that by keeping teams off the offensive glass. They also create enough turnovers to fuel a fast-break attack that’s at the top of UNLV’s scouting report.

“Our No. 1 one key is slowing down offensive transition,” Rice said. “They’re lethal in offensive transition.”

Boise State has the same core of players that split the series with UNLV last season and then lost in the Round of 64 in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Junior Anthony Drmic leads the team in scoring with 17.6 points per game while senior Ryan Watkins, the team’s lone big man at 6-foot-9, is averaging 11.4 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. While on the floor Watkins grabs 20.4 percent of all available offensive rebounds, which is the second-best rate in the country.

Add in a couple of shooters — Jeff Elorriaga and Nick Duncan — who are hitting better than 46 percent on 3-point attempts and it appears the Rebels will have their hands full defensively. And they’re OK with that, considering UNLV has held two of its last three opponents to season-low scoring totals.

“We’re riding our defense off our confidence,” Birch said.

Similarly, Boise State allowed less than 60 points in each of its last two victories.

These teams play disparate styles but there are a lot of similarities about their current situations. By Saturday night their conference record is one thing that won’t be the same, and the team still stuck at five victories might have missed out on its chance to sneak out of the middle of the pack.

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

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