Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016 | 2 a.m.
UNLV thought it had the right plan for Wednesday’s game against San Jose State. Faced with a thin roster, interim coach Todd Simon wanted to play zone defense to help the players overcome their lack of size and avoid foul trouble while keeping an aggressive defensive mentality.
By the first media timeout, the zone was gone.
“We looked real un-confident,” Simon said. “It kind of had the opposite effect.”
The Rebels’ foul situation each game is important, especially with only seven scholarship players currently available. But they put so much emphasis on avoiding fouls against the Spartans that they ended up helping the road team take a 13-point halftime lead.
It’s a balance that UNLV (14-11, 5-7) must attempt to find each game, and that continues tonight at 7 against Colorado State (14-10, 6-5) in the Thomas & Mack Center on ESPNU.
“Despite our short numbers, we can’t be tentative,” Simon said.
What UNLV learned is that the zone defense that helped it rally and nearly win at Fresno State on Saturday isn’t a cure-all. When freshman Stephen Zimmerman Jr. went down, the Rebels switched to zone and stymied the Bulldogs’ offense while winning the rebounding battle.
Then they came out in a similar look against San Jose State and could not have looked more disengaged from the game, failing to contest many shots while letting the Spartans beat them to loose balls. The Rebels, with help from a sparse but loud crowd, eventually flipped the switch in the second half and pressured the Spartans into mistakes that allowed UNLV to win despite shooting less than 30 percent from the field.
A big part of UNLV’s rally came from its full-court press and backcourt traps that forced San Jose State to crumble. Of course, the catch-22 the Rebels currently face is that without depth they can’t play that style very much, but a roster without a big man that struggles to shoot might not be able to win any other way.
The current solution is to try to deploy their chaos in specific situations.
“We’ll pick our spots here early in games,” Simon said.
Just like the game plan against San Jose State had to be completely changed during the game, UNLV is going to have to react and alter its style to specific game situations. The most obvious is foul trouble, which is a big reason they went to the zone in the first place.
The good news for this game is that Colorado State attempts the second-most 3-pointers per game in the Mountain West. The Rams are pretty good from beyond the arc, hitting 36.3 percent in league play, but it’s preferable for a guard-heavy lineup like UNLV to defend the 3-point line more often than drives to the basket.
Zimmerman, who sprained his left knee against Fresno State, is still out and there’s no update on a potential return. Help might not be coming until the conference tournament, if at all, so the Rebels will continue to try different things to figure out how the remaining group might best work together.
“We’re constantly having guys out of their comfort zones,” Simon said.
That’s an idea they need to get comfortable with.