Rebels basketball:

Tough task for UNLV assistant: Find a way to contain Aztecs’ Shepard

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV’s Khem Birch and Anthony Bennett defend a shot by San Diego State guard Winston Shepard during their game Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013. UNLV won the game 72-70 to sweep the regular season series.

One of the people least surprised by Winston Shepard’s emergence as an all-around solid player for No. 10 San Diego State is now one of the guys tasked with figuring out how to stop him.

UNLV and SDSU will meet Saturday in Viejas Arena for the latest installment of the best rivalry in the Mountain West. One of many subplots is UNLV assistant Todd Simon helping the Rebels prepare to face one of his former Findlay Prep players in Shepard, who’s enjoying a breakout sophomore season.

“Winston is exactly who I thought he would be,” Simon said. “I knew he would be a tremendous competitor. He brings all kinds of toughness, a very good skill set, and he can do a lot of things at that size. It’s neat to see it come to fruition.”

It’s been a bumpy road for Shepard, who was arrested for marijuana possession a few days into his SDSU tenure and also served a three-game suspension for impermissible benefits, but midway through his second season, all signs are pointing up. Shepard is averaging 13.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game while also using his lanky 6-foot-8 frame to be a key cog in San Diego State’s stellar defense.

“We as a team try to be next-play guys and not let things that happen on offense affect our defense,” Shepard said.

While his off-court issues are certainly less noticeable than during his freshman year, it hasn’t been an entirely smooth season for Shepard. San Diego State coach Steve Fisher didn’t like something Shepard was doing, so Fisher made him watch the Aztecs’ Dec. 18 game against Southern Utah from the bench in street clothes.

“You have a responsibility as a player to make sure you're representing yourself, the team and the university in a fashion that's fitting,” Fisher said after that game. “As a result of some things Winston did, I chose not to play him.”

Sitting out has had a profound effect on Shepard’s production. Over the four games before he was held out, Shepard shot 27.5 percent from the field (11-for-40) with 13 turnovers. In the four games that followed, he shot 60 percent (21-for-35) with four turnovers.

“I won’t say I was happy about it,” Shepard said, “but I think it has worked.”

That second stretch included the Aztecs’ victory at Kansas. That was the day most of the country learned just how good San Diego State’s defense is this year.

With former UNLV assistant Justin Hutson in charge of that unit, the Aztecs’ defense ranks seventh in the country in effective field goal percentage defense. They held Kansas to 29.8 percent shooting — the Jayhawks’ lowest total at home since 1998 — and have kept their opponents to 61 points or fewer in 10 of their 16 games.

Watching that game the first time, Simon had a hard time looking at it simply as a coach scouting a rival.

“There’s a big part of me just rooting for him,” Simon said. “And then I rewatched it to get more into the strategy and scheming side of things.”

Shepard is the most heralded recruit to ever commit to the Aztecs, going in ranked No. 21 overall in the class of 2012 by Rivals.com. Of course, at Findlay Prep that was barely good enough for second-best on the team, behind Anthony Bennett (No. 7) and ahead of Brandon Ashley (No. 23).

The Aztecs are pleased that he’s delivering on that promise and even more happy with the play of senior point guard Xavier Thames, who’s averaging 16.9 points per game and leading the team at both ends.

San Diego State’s scare against Fresno State combined with UNLV’s upset at New Mexico should mean that the Aztecs won’t overlook the Rebels. Of course, considering the recent games in this series, that was unlikely to happen no matter what.

None of the matchups in the past three seasons was decided by more than seven points. UNLV comes in on a three-game winning streak in the series.

The Rebels will have to work hard to make this one another classic, and Wednesday’s confidence-building win probably helped. More important is containing Shepard, who scored 18 points in the first matchup against UNLV last season and is looking forward to seeing the familiar faces on the opposite side.

“It’s going to be fireworks,” Shepard said.

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