Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015 | 2 a.m.
Was this a successful debut season for UNLV football coach Tony Sanchez? Is this going to be a successful stretch, starting with Friday's game against the Oregon Ducks, for UNLV basketball coach Dave Rice? Las Vegas Sun sports editor Ray Brewer and sports writers Case Keefer and Taylor Bern get into that and much more on this week's episode.
The college basketball season feels like it just started, because really, it has, and yet we’re already through about 20 percent of it. That’s not enough time to draw definitive conclusions about a team’s strengths or weaknesses but it does start to give us a sample size big enough to contrast against other recent seasons.
That’s what’s going on here, as we look at a few areas of growth either individually or as a team for UNLV. The Rebels (6-1) will be tested far more over the next three weeks than the previous ones, so while some of these numbers will drift back to the mean, others should inspire confidence heading into the 8 p.m. game Friday against No. 15 Oregon (6-0) at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
83.6 — Points Per Game
There are several reasons for this, but the simple fact is in seven games UNLV has scored at least 80 points four times. In 33 games last season the Rebels did that only twice.
Scoring is up across the country thanks in part to rules changes like dropping the shot clock to 30 seconds and more foul calls leading to a more free throw attempts. UNLV’s scoring is up because of those things plus an improved roster playing a more up-tempo style that’s taking advantage of subpar competition.
All four of the Rebels’ games above 80 points have been against non-Division I teams or D-I teams rated 300 or below. But a lot of the scoring is going to remain even as the competition steps up.
So far UNLV is taking 9 more free throws and scoring 15.4 more points per game than last season. Those won’t remain at that level but it’s fair to expect the Rebels’ scoring to jump from 68.2 per game to something in the middle to high 70s, and that’s due in part to this:
24.6 — Defensive Turnover Percentage
In the last two seasons, UNLV ranked in the bottom 40 nationally in defensive turnover percentage. By design, those turnover numbers have increased and so far it’s been enough to jump-start the kind of run outs the Rebels are looking for.
This is another number that won’t hold, but through seven games UNLV opponents are averaging nearly 10 more turnovers than they were last season. That 24.6 defensive turnover percentage figure ranks 14th in the country and the offensive turnover percentage (19.4) hasn’t jumped up enough to offset the benefits.
It’s a big reason UNLV has its most efficient defensive numbers since 2012-13 and that figures to improve as the opponents’ free throw numbers — Division I opponents are hitting 75 percent of their attempts — falls closer to average.
23 — Minutes Played for Carter vs. UNLV
There weren’t many games when Oregon’s Ben Carter resembled UNLV’s Ben Carter, but one of them was when a freshman Carter helped the Ducks come in and hand Rice his first regular season loss at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Against the Rebels on Nov. 23, 2012, Carter produced 12 points (3/5 FGs, 6/6 FTs), five rebounds and an assist in 23 minutes. For a big part of the reason Carter transferred home to Las Vegas, look no further than that number: In 62 games at Oregon, that was the second-most minutes he ever played, and now at UNLV he’s averaging 23.1 minutes per game.
Carter isn’t trying to feed into the hype, but this game means more to him similar to how UNLV-Oregon meant more to him three years ago. The biggest difference is that his production is no longer a surprise, it’s expected.
7 — McCaw Two-Point Jump Shot Attempts
UNLV’s two leading scorers last season did a lot of their work with the least efficient shot in basketball, the two-point jumper. Christian Wood and Rashad Vaughn got 33.2 percent and 28.7 percent of their shots, respectively, from two-point jumpers, hitting 44.8 and 42.6 percent on those attempts, according to hoop-math.com.
The Golden State Warriors are the current prime example of the desired effect, but it’s been well discussed for several years now that good teams want to make their living on layups and 3-pointers. That means passing up the looks in between, sometimes even good ones.
While Rice always wants his guys comfortable taking open shots no matter where they’re at, the emphasis on layups/3-pointer attempts has been laid out in the film room. This year’s leading scorer, Pat McCaw, is attempting two-point jumpers only eight percent of the time, down from his already conservative 17.6 last season.
Overall the team is getting 15.9 percent of its offense from two-point jumpers, down significantly from 29.8 percent last year. A perfect example is senior Ike Nwamu, who went from having to do everything for Mercer’s offense — including 24.5 percent of his attempts coming from two-point jumpers — to understanding it’s 3s and drives that UNLV needs from him, and his two-point jump shot attempt percentage has dropped to 4.5.
That will become even more impactful when the career 37.6 percent 3-point shooter starts hitting better than 30 percent beyond the arc this season.