Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016 | 2 a.m.
A rivalry isn’t judged strictly on wins and losses, but that’s a big part of it, and lately UNLV isn’t holding up its end against first-place San Diego State. The Aztecs have won 12 of the past 15 against the Rebels, including six straight heading into tonight’s contest at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“This has been a giant that we have to take down,” said UNLV interim coach Todd Simon.
The Rebels (13-8, 4-4) get a chance to snap that streak and hand the Aztecs (15-6, 8-0) their first conference loss this season when the teams tip off tonight at 5. The game will air on CBS Sports Network.
Here’s what you should know heading into what could be UNLV’s biggest home game of the season:
1. 1 vs. 7
Steve Fisher took over at San Diego State in 1999. Tonight he will face the seventh UNLV coach during that stretch, which highlights one of the reasons San Diego State has turned itself into the league’s top program.
“They may be as good as anybody in the last decade of imposing their style and winning games in the last four or five minutes after doing so,” Simon said. “They know exactly who they are and it’s kind of been a true program where they’ve handed it down from generation to generation.”
The Aztecs have earned at least a share of the Mountain West regular-season title four of the past five years and they’ve made the last six NCAA tournaments, advancing twice to the Sweet Sixteen. Under Fisher’s guidance, the program has reached new heights and become the most consistent factor in the Mountain West race, including this year’s 8-0 start.
This team in particular has shown a lot of cracks, including home losses to Arkansas-Little Rock and Grand Canyon and narrow league victories, but nearly halfway through conference play the Aztecs are right where most predicted them in the preseason: on top.
“They’re the top seed and everyone is chasing them, as of now,” said UNLV junior Ben Carter. “So it’s just another opportunity to go out and prove to the league that we’re still competitive and we have plans to make this a battle.”
The full list of Fisher’s Rebel foes, which includes two interims prior to Simon: Bill Bayno, current special assistant Max Good, Charlie Spoonhour, Jay Spoonhour, Lon Kruger and Dave Rice.
Simon and San Diego State’s Winston Shepard share a bond that not even UNLV’s players can claim, because at one time Simon and Shepard were roommates.
Shepard played three seasons at Findlay Prep, and for two years he lived in the Pilots’ players house with some adult supervision from Simon, who was an assistant coach. The program won two National High School Invitational titles during that stretch, including one with the help of former Rebel Anthony Bennett.
So while UNLV would have Shepard’s attention no matter what, he has a special connection with Simon dating back seven years.
“Those guys are playing some great basketball right now,” Shepard said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Coach Simon.”
Shepard’s biggest value is his defense, which is good because his already-shaky shooting has tanked this season. Shepard’s effective field-goal percentage (37.2) is just a few ticks better than struggling sophomore Malik Pope's and would be by far the worst in UNLV’s rotation.
But when it matters most, Simon said, Shepard is a guy who can bet counted on at both ends.
“The more you give him the better he is in terms of responsibility, and now he’s kind of their guy,” Simon said. “… He’s a pure winner. Last two, three, four minutes of games, for whatever reason he hulks up and makes shots, makes free throws, gets big rebounds and steals. It’s kind of been who he was throughout, even at the high school level.”
3. The Ugly Game
The uglier and lower scoring this game is, the better it would be for San Diego State. That’s why the Rebels are especially focused on matching SDSU’s toughness and effort, especially in the frontcourt.
“If we don’t, then it’s going to get bad,” said freshman Stephen Zimmerman Jr.
According to kenpom.com, San Diego State has the third-best defense in adjusted efficiency while its offense ranks No. 267. UNLV has a wide disparity, too — defense No. 7, offense No. 223 — but that’s due far more to the Rebels’ turnover issues than any shooting woes.
San Diego State simply can’t consistently shoot the ball well, so it tries to slow the game down and then make those possessions a bruising battle, because that’s what it's good at.
“It is pretty frustrating because they’re one of the top defensive teams in the country,” Zimmerman said of getting caught in a slow game.
Creating turnovers would be an effective way to speed up the game, and outside of that the Rebels simply want to push the ball ahead as much as possible. They’ve seen what can happen when they get in space out in transition, and that’s the type of game they want this to be.
“It puts an onus on a team that maybe isn’t just a tremendous scoring team,” Simon said. “They’re phenomenal defensively, but they haven’t played a lot of games with high scoring. … We don’t want to stay down in the mud.”
4. Electric Atmosphere
Beyond the stature of each program in the Mountain West and the proximity of the cities, it’s connections that make this rivalry come alive.
This year’s version of connect the dots: Shepard used to play for and live with Simon, who joined UNLV’s staff to replace current SDSU assistant Justin Hutson, who spent time as a Rebel recruiting Zimmerman, who used to play on the basketball team Dream Vision with SDSU freshman Jeremy Hemsley, and on and on.
If either UNLV or San Diego State is recruiting a high school player, there’s a good chance the other one is going after him, too. They compete against each other year-round, so when the games finally come around they’re always ready to go.
“You know you’re going to be excited and ready to play on both sides,” Fisher said.
In general, the fans don’t like each other, and that ill will together with the competitive animosity on the court and a propensity for close games makes this a must-attend game for both fan bases. Over the past five years, the Rebels are only 3-10 in the series, but the average margin of victory has been 5.1 points, with only one game decided by double digits.
“It’s going to be a 40-minute war,” Carter said.
That’s usually the case, and there’s always a lot of energy in the building.
5. Green Update
UNLV junior Tyrell Green hasn’t dressed for the Rebels’ past two games, and there’s a chance he could be shut down for the season with UNLV hopeful he could attain a medical redshirt, Simon said.
Green, a junior college transfer from Hill College in Texas, hasn’t appeared in a game since Dec. 22 against South Dakota, when he scored three points in nine minutes. Simon said Green has had multiple injuries limiting him over the past month or longer, and because he hasn’t used a redshirt and is still under the maximum appearances, they could possibly get him a fifth season.
If that’s the route UNLV ends up going, it would be up to the NCAA to determine whether to grant Green an additional year of eligibility. NCAA bylaw 14.2.4 requires that the injury be something season-ending that occurs in the first half of the season before an athlete has competed in at least 30 percent of the team’s games, with medical documentation proving he could no longer compete.