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NCAA TOURNAMENT:

On a senior-laden roster, junior Lucas O’Rear is the driving force for Northern Iowa

Panthers feed off of energy provided in reserve role by two-time MVC Sixth Man of the Year

UNI Forward Lucas O'Rear

Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNI forward Lucas O’Rear talks to the media before practice for the first round of the NCAA Basketball Championships Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at the Ford Center in Oklahoma Ctiy.

The Importance of Experience

Northern Iowa's veteran leadership may prove to be the difference-maker in the Panthers first round match-up with UNLV.

UNI vs UNLV Breakdown

Christine Killimayer and Ryan Greene discuss the first round match-up between Northern Iowa and UNLV.

Jasper: Knee Update

UNLV guard Derrick Jasper talks about the progress his knee has made since spraining his MCL in January.

Tweeting from the Tourney

With all the down time leading up to the first round games of the NCAA Tournament, Rebels find ways to keep themselves entertained.

NCAA Tournament - UNLV Practice

UNLV players Matt Shaw (left), Steve Jones and Tre'Von Willis get ready for practice Wednesday for the first round of the NCAA Basketball Championships at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City. Launch slideshow »
The Rebel Room

UNLV-Northern Iowa Preview with Kelly Beaton

Ryan Greene is joined in Oklahoma City by Kelly Beaton, who is the Northern Iowa beat writer for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. The two preview Thursday's 8 vs. 9 game between UNLV and UNI.

UNLV vs. Northern Iowa

  • UNLV Rebels (25-8 overall, 11-5 MWC) vs. Northern Iowa Panthers (28-4, 15-3 MVC)

  • Where: Ford Center

  • When: 4:10 p.m.

  • Coaches: Lon Kruger is 137-61 in his six seasons at UNLV and 455-294 in 24 overall seasons; Ben Jacobson is 87-42 in his four seasons at UNI, which is his first head coaching job.

  • Series: First meeting

  • Last time: N/A

  • Line: UNLV by 1.5

  • TV/Radio: CBS/ESPN Radio 1100-AM

  • THE REBELS

  • G Oscar Bellfield (6-2, 180) 9.2 ppg, 4.8 apg, 2.5 rpg

  • G Anthony Marshall (6-3, 200) 5.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg

  • G Tre'Von Willis (6-4, 195) 17.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.4 apg

  • F Chace Stanback (6-8, 210) 10.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg

  • F Darris Santee (6-8, 225) 4.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg

  • Bench: F Brice Massamba (6-10, 240) 4.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg; G Justin Hawkins (6-3, 190) 3.4 ppg, 1.4 rpg; G Kendall Wallace (6-4, 190) 6.9 ppg, 1.6 rpg; F Matt Shaw (6-8, 240) 6.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg; G Derrick Jasper (6-6, 215) 6.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.9 apg; G Steve Jones (6-1, 220) 1.6 ppg, 1.2 rpg.

  • What to watch: Oscar Bellfield has a history of coming up big in big-time games for UNLV. He said on Friday that this is the biggest game he's every played in. That said, you can put two and two together.

  • THE PANTHERS

  • G Kwadzo Ahelegbe (6-2, 200) 10.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.7 apg

  • G Ali Farokhmanesh (6-0, 190) 9.3 ppg, 1.5 rpg

  • G Johnny Moran (6-1, 190) 5.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg

  • F Adam Koch (6-8, 255) 11.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg

  • C Jordan Eglseder (7-0, 280) 12.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg

  • Bench: F Lucas O'Rear (6-6, 255) 4.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg; G Kerwin Dunham (6-6, 200) 3.6 ppg, 1.1 rpg; F Jake Koch (6-9, 255) 3.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg; G Marc Sonnen (6-3, 185) 2.7 ppg, 1.2 rpg.

  • What to watch: The offense starts with Kwadzo Ahelegbe, who leads the team in assists at 2.7 per game, but also leads the Panthers in turnovers per game at 2.9. If UNI is going to be successful, he has to handle UNLV's non-stop pressure defense efficiently.

OKLAHOMA CITY — The NBA's logo — one of the more recognizable symbols in all of sports — is a silhouette of former Lakers great Jerry West.

It's a symbol of excellence.

If you ask Northern Iowa senior point guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe, a logo for the Missouri Valley Conference could very easily be about 6-foot-6, look a little stocky and have bushy, reddish mutton chops.

Yes, mutton chops.

The description is of his teammate junior forward Lucas O'Rear.

O'Rear doesn't lead the Panthers (28-4) in any major statistical categories, but without his presence, the whole thing might just fall apart.

"I'm the guy that comes in there and gives energy, and that's just the role that I've been appointed," O'Rear said. "I'm just going to go out there and do what I do. I think the whole conference has noticed that."

The conference sure has, as O'Rear this season won the league's Sixth Man of the Year award for the second year in a row.

And it's O'Rear who epitomizes the blue-collar approach the Panthers took under coach Ben Jacobson en route to winning both the regular season and tournament titles in the MVC.

O'Rear averages just 4.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, but he's the perfect complement to a group of established seniors who will go for the program's first NCAA tournament victory since 1990 at 4 p.m. PDT today in Oklahoma City against UNLV (25-8).

Two of the headliners for the Panthers are, coincidentally, the two guys O'Rear plays behind — seniors Jordan Eglseder and Adam Koch.

Eglseder, a 7-foot, 280 pound load inside, averages 12 points and 7.3 boards each time out, while Koch, who posts 11.8 points and 4.9 rebounds a game, can score from almost anywhere and was named the MVC's Player of the Year this season.

The thing is, O'Rear never expected to be a headliner or a star when coming out of high school in Nashville, Ill.

But with a thick, burly build, the chops — which are borderline-acceptable under coach Jacobson's "no facial hair" rule — and tattoos on each shoulder, he understands the perception people have of him when seeing UNI play for the first time.

"They probably look at me and think, 'Why is that kid even playing basketball. He's a little overweight and he's not too fast,'" he said.

Instead, late in his career at Nashville High, he embraced the underdog vibe he gives off, began taking the most pride in his ability to set screens and send a shock through chasing defenders who encounter his 255-pound frame at full speed.

Now, in much the same way you'll see offensive linemen chart how many pancake blocks they can apply in a game, O'Rear regularly dissects game film with UNI assistant Kyle Green to find his, um, highlights.

"A lot of guys say they set screens, but they really don't," he said. "They're just kind of out there and they get in the way a little bit. A lot of guys don't like to do it. It's kind of a lost art, I say.

"I look at it as instead of getting an assist, I should set a screen, get that guy open, and it's kind of an assist for me."

It's that kind of sacrifice-for-the-team effort which Northern Iowa as a group thinks will help the Panthers hold their own against a UNLV team which, athletically, is more aesthetically pleasing across the board.

"Their guard play is pretty solid and they've got a couple big guys down there who can step out and hit the 3-pointer," he said. "It's gonna be a challenge.

What they've done all year has worked just fine.

UNLV, which averages 73.3 points per game, might have to work harder than it has all season to hit that mark, as UNI has only surrendered 54.3 a night.

If the Panthers are going to establish their pace early and force the Rebels to play a slower game than they're accustomed to, O'Rear could likely have plenty to do with it.

Or at least his attitude and approach.

"We just have to rely on our team defense," he said. "They've got a lot of athletes, so they're gonna be obviously more athletic, probably a little quicker. But as long as we've got five guys on defense against whoever they want to go one-on-one with, we're gonna have them out-numbered in that situation. We've just got to keep playing gap defense like we've been doing all year and just try to contain them."

Jasper back?

Junior guard Derrick Jasper, who has missed the Rebels' last 12 games recovering from a partially torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee, made it sound on Wednesday as if he'll be a go come today's tip.

"As of today, I'm playing," he said before UNLV took the floor for an open practice session at the Ford Center. "You never know if it's gonna swell up or anything, but as of right now I plan on playing."

Coach Lon Kruger didn't definitively say whether Jasper would see the floor against Northern Iowa but instead echoed what he'd said all along: It will be up to his junior guard, who this season is averaging 6.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game.

If Jasper were to play, it wouldn't be in a 24.5-minute-per-game role he was in before going down on Jan. 26 against Air Force.

Even with that, Jasper said a motivating factor for him is finishing the season — whenever that may be — as a contributor rather than having not come back at all.

Willis feeling fine

UNLV junior guard and leading scorer Tre'Von Willis, who tweaked his left ankle last Friday in a 70-66 victory over BYU in the Mountain West Conference tournament semifinals, said he's feeling fine.

He looked fine moving around on Wednesday during the light afternoon workout and was simply enjoying the experience of being back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since he was a freshman at Memphis in 2007.

"You can just see it in the guys in the locker room," he said. "We're having fun; it's a blast to be here and we just want to relish the opportunity."

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