Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017 | 2 a.m.
The Mountain West has long had a rugged, physical reputation, but a quick glance around the league reveals that the times are changing.
Conference favorite UNR is 18th nationally in made 3-pointers and seventh in accuracy (42.6 percent).
Wyoming ranks in the top 50 in 3-point attempts and makes (and just buried traditionally rugged and physical San Diego State under an avalanche of a dozen 3-pointers in an 82-69 blowout).
And Boise State — UNLV’s opponent in Saturday’s MWC opener — is 12th in the country in total 3-pointers (147) and 27th in accuracy (40.2 percent).
Slow, monolithic slugfests are on the way out. The Mountain West’s new motto is “Bombs away.”
With all signs pointing to the conference championship being decided from beyond the arc this season, Rebels head coach Marvin Menzies has taken a proactive approach to matching up. UNLV is all-in on Menzies’ philosophy of forcing “tough 2’s” — a defensive strategy that tasks the Rebels with chasing opposing shooters off the 3-point line and funneling them into 2-point land.
The math behind the concept is simple: Three is greater than two, so defending the arc takes priority over everything else. Lure opponents into shooting more 2-pointers — the more difficult, the better — and the equation shifts in your favor.
Menzies said recent trends in the game have made focusing on 3-point defense a necessity.
“In the nature of the beast of Division I men’s basketball now, tough 2s aren’t really going to beat you,” Menzies said. “It’s the 3-point percentages and frequency that has gone up so much in recent years that you’ve just got to make sure you remove that factor.
“Typically, tough 2s are going to fall in at a lower rate than an uncontested shot.”
The Rebels have achieved good results by following Menzies’ plan. Through 13 games, UNLV has limited opponents to 70 made 3-pointers, which ranks as the 17th-fewest in the nation. And even when opponents have found enough open space to let it fly from long distance, the Rebels have done a good job of contesting shots, limiting teams to just 28.1 percent from 3-point range, which ranks ninth in the nation.
The strategy, in general terms, calls for UNLV defenders to rush out to shooters and discourage long-range attempts. Spot-up 3-point shots are the enemy.
Senior guard Jovan Mooring said he and his teammates have adapted to Menzies’ system.
“It’s just pressuring the ball, running shooters off the line, not letting guys get open looks,” Mooring said. “Because when teams get hot from behind the 3, that can make it a long night for anyone.”
It’s working. UNLV has effectively challenged 60.2 percent of all catch-and-shoot jump shots, according to Synergy Sports data. And opponents are making just 29.8 percent of catch-and-shoot opportunities, which ranks 18th in the nation.
Ideally, the system works like it did on this play against Northern Colorado. A shooter is spotted up in the corner, but UNLV forward Shakur Juiston races out to discourage the catch-and-shoot attempt. The Northern Colorado player sees Juiston closing ground and decides to drive past him. But center Brandon McCoy is waiting in the paint to make it a difficult shot:
That’s what it looks like when the defense is played perfectly. There are drawbacks to defending the arc at all costs, however.
On this play from the same game, McCoy runs out to the corner to challenge a 3-point attempt. That allows the Northern Colorado player to pump fake and drive past him along the baseline for a reverse layup:
The same thing happened on this play, as McCoy again stretches out to challenge a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer on the wing. That allows the Northern Colorado player to dribble through the lane for another layup:
Most teams would coach their 7-foot center to stay closer to the paint and surrender those 3-pointers, but Menzies would rather force opponents to convert a reverse layup than concede an open triple.
Plays like that may cast McCoy in an unflattering light to casual observers, as it looks like he’s getting beat for layup after layup. But McCoy’s teammates and coaches understand that he is executing the defensive game plan.
In that game, Northern Colorado was limited to 27.6 percent from 3-point range (8-of-29), so the Rebels were clearly doing something right.
Menzies said getting players to buy in is an important aspect of implementing such a strategy. Once they understand the math behind the importance of 3-point defense, they’re more likely to embrace the plan.
“We’ve educated them on that,” Menzies said. “I feel like philosophically, guys need to know…I think the more they know, it’s better for them to understand and prepare and get their head in the right place. When you start talking about statistics, that’s another area that we like to educate them on. We’ve had several quizzes and talks about what’s a good percentage, what’s a bad percentage and why. What’s a good assist-to-turnover ratio.
“You can’t assume they know that stuff, so you’ve got to teach them.”
Northern Colorado shares some offensive DNA with Boise State due to coaching connections, as Bears’ head coach Jeff Linder spent the past six seasons as an assistant at BSU. Both teams run a lot of the same action and shoot a lot of 3’s, so UNLV’s strategy of chasing shooters off the 3-point line will be tested again on Saturday.
Menzies said Boise State and Northern Colorado share offensive similarities, but that the Rebels will have to defend at an even higher level on Saturday.
“That goes in line with what we want to try to do,” Menzies said. “[Boise State is] really good in those areas — for example, 3-point shooting. We’ve got to do a good job defending the 3…It will be a great test for us.”
Two Mountain West contenders will meet on Saturday, and the winner will likely be decided by the 3-point line. Get used to that concept.