Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Over the last four seasons, there probably hasn’t been a more entertaining series for UNLV than its meetings with Boise State. The teams will add another chapter tonight at 8 when they tip off at the Thomas & Mack Center on CBS Sports Network.
The teams are an even 4-4 over that stretch, three games have gone to overtime and if you throw out UNLV’s 17-point home victory in 2012 the average margin has been 4.7 points.
Boise State (15-5, 6-1) comes in on a three-game winning streak in the series, although this is interim coach Todd Simon’s first meeting since taking over at UNLV (12-8, 3-4). Here’s a look at some of the factors heading into what should be another exciting matchup:
1. UNLV’s Place in the Race
By Saturday night, the Rebels’ long-shot dreams of a regular-season conference title will either remain on life support or flat line. Even if they go 2-0 the focus could already be on the conference tournament, because not only would UNLV have to go on a huge run, but the leaders need to come back to the pack.
UNLV could accomplish both of those with victories against second-place Boise State and first-place San Diego State this week, but that’s just a start. SDSU needs to lose some of the close games they keep winning, and UNLV has to hope the Broncos don’t have a run in them like the 14-1 stretch that helped them become co-champions last year.
The positive is that while UNLV has handed out some beatdowns, the Rebels haven’t taken any. All four losses are by an average of two points each, and they’re the fourth unluckiest team in the country according to kenpom.com.
“We feel like, for the most part, in the losses we’ve beat ourselves,” Simon said.
While that’s true, a team that beats itself four times is likely to do it again. The Rebels have a huge uphill climb that they’re attempting to surmount game by game.
A 2-0 week would keep those slim hopes alive, but the opposite would effectively eliminate the Rebels.
2. The Duncan Problem
Junior James Webb III is the toughest one-on-one matchup for any Rebel defender because the 6-foot-9 forward is athletic and efficient, but the guy who could create the biggest matchup problem is another junior who’s an inch shorter and 60 pounds heavier than Webb. As a center, Nick Duncan is just that unique.
Duncan, a Sydney, Australia native, is primarily a spot-up 3-point shooter, and while his overall 3-point percentage has dropped each season as his role and attempts have grown, his percentage in league play remains formidable. In Mountain West games, Duncan has hit 43.8, 42.2 and 35 percent each season. That’s good enough to make opponents’ 5-man, in this case freshman Stephen Zimmerman Jr., chase him around the perimeter.
“They really play position-less basketball,” said Simon, who added that last year they were able to create some favorable defensive matchups because the Broncos usually had at least one non-shooter on the floor. “… We don’t necessarily have those opportunities to be creative (this year), so now you have to really respect Duncan is going to pull Zimm away from the rim a little bit, but all that means is the rest of the guys got to be on point. The help side needs to be there.”
Duncan shot 1-for-6 from deep in Boise State’s lone league loss to San Diego State and then made 7 of his next 15. As long as he’s good enough to keep Zimmerman honest there should be driving lanes because the Rebels would rather Duncan try to beat them off the dribble than with spot-up jumpers.
“(Duncan) can shoot it very well, but he can’t really get to the lane so that’s going to bring Zimm out of the paint,” said senior guard Jerome Seagears.
Duncan doesn’t look like he should be as good as he is, which often comes back to bite opponents that don’t take him seriously enough. Seagears was confident that not only would UNLV close out plenty hard, but if he ended up guarding Duncan, Seagears wouldn’t have trouble guarding the dribble, either.
“If he gets me on the pump fake and go, I’m in the wrong business,” Seagears said.
3. Preparing with War
The traditional complaints after a close loss were all there for the Rebels in the wake of Saturday’s 65-63 defeat at UNR. On top of the turnovers and missed free throws, UNLV was outrebounded 41-34 by a smaller team and didn’t go after or get enough 50/50 balls for Simon’s liking.
“We need to be the team that’s delivering more bruises than receiving,” Simon said. “… That’s a part of who we need to be going forward, is a gritty, nasty basketball team.”
One of the things Simon did to try and help on Monday was run the War drill popularized by Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. It’s basically a test of positioning and will with few rules other than grab the rebound.
That’s one of a few new drills Simon has brought to UNLV’s practices. Each one is designed not only to work on that specific skill or situation, but also create a competition so that there’s always something at stake.
“Build the pressure on every possible thing you can,” Simon said.
Offensive fouls have at times plagued the Rebels as they attempt to figure out how each crew of officials is calling the action that night. It was a problem again at UNR, and while some of it is out of their hands — two refs could easily call the same block/charge play differently — the Rebels have become too susceptible to them for Simon’s liking.
That’s one of a few things that Simon is trying to drill into the players’ heads so that the adjustments happen before the game, not during.
“We know teams are going to take charges on us, we know teams are going to bear-hug Zimm and make it difficult on him, so we have to be a little smarter and adjust our attack as necessary,” Simon said.
Simon thought that physical post play was one of the reasons UNLV wasn’t able to feed the ball inside down the stretch at UNR. Since that worked so well, the Rebels can expect even more opponents to test how much they can push and shove Zimmerman around before he, the Rebels or the refs do something about it.
5. Jones Cleared for Takeoff
Derrick Jones Jr. made two field goals at UNR, and both came in the first minute of the second half. But just as Jones started to get going his game effectively ended when he tripped over referee Deron White.
Jones was running to the corner in front of UNLV’s bench when he stumbled over White, who was ahead of the play going towards the baseline. Jones grabbed his ankle and was writhing around in pain, though like most basketball and soccer injuries it wasn’t as bad as it first appeared.
Jones played about six and a half minutes after that, but he wasn’t as explosive as he had been coming out of halftime and when UNLV was looking for somebody to step up and lead offensively Jones wasn’t able to fill the role. He finished with seven points, four fouls, two assists and two blocks in 17 minutes, and while many fans pointed to the accidental injury as a turning point, Simon tried to use it as an example of a situation UNLV can’t allow to slow them down.
“Those are the types of things that from a mental toughness standpoint, we’ve got to sustain our focus,” Simon said.
Jones was limited in Monday’s practice but was cleared for Tuesday and is expected to start tonight. When foul trouble or a bum ankle don’t slow him down almost nothing else can, so the Rebels are hoping that at least the injury is in the past.