Before Rice matchup, Rebels showing lineup versatility

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas News Bureau

UNLV Rebels head coach Marvin Menzies talks with forward Shakur Juiston (10) during a game against the Eastern Washington Eagles on Friday, November 17, 2017, at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV won the game 91-76.

UNLV wants to play big this season. That’s no secret.

But against Eastern Washington on Friday, the Rebels had to change gears and go in the opposite direction in order to improve to 3-0.

Early in the game, Eastern Washington had success by spreading the floor with smaller, quicker offensive players and forcing the UNLV big men to defend off the dribble in space. That proved to be a bit of a challenge for the Rebels.

Freshman center Brandon McCoy was clearly not used to playing on-ball defense 20-plus feet from the basket:

And backup center Cheickna Dembele in particular struggled with the unusual assignment. Normally a creature of the painted area, Dembele was beaten off the dribble on multiple occasions:

UNLV coach Marvin Menzies wants size on the floor as often as possible, but after recognizing Eastern Washington’s strategy, he countered by going small for the first time this season. Late in the first half and for several stretches in the second half, when McCoy subbed out, Menzies didn’t replace him with another center.

Instead, Menzies moved starting power forward Shakur Juiston to center for those minutes and played a smaller power forward next to him, such as 6-foot-4 junior Anthony Smith or 6-foot-7 freshman Tervell Beck.

The move worked. In the seven minutes that Juiston played center while flanked by a smaller player, UNLV outscored Eastern Washington, 18-8.

Beck and Smith certainly looked like more fluid defenders on the perimeter:

Though the smaller lineup only amounted to a dozen or so possessions in a game UNLV would have probably won anyway, it was an important early-season development because it’s not the last time the Rebels are going to see an opponent try that tactic. Not many teams will be able to match UNLV’s size on the inside, so the natural response from opponents will be to punt and play small. Against Eastern Washington, the Rebels showed they were ready for it and capable of playing well without their signature size.

After the game, Menzies said the emphasis was on defending the perimeter and taking away Eastern Washington’s 3-point attempts.

“At one point [Eastern Washington] had five pure shooters on the floor,” Menzies said. “And so it was like, ‘What do you do?’ Well, what we practiced. And they did a great job of covering out and taking away the 3-ball.”

For the game, Eastern Washington attempted 14 shots from beyond the arc and made only three.

Going small has its disadvantages, namely rebounding. But with Juiston in the middle, that’s less of a concern. He’s one of the best rebounders in college basketball, and he pulled down a ridiculous 18 boards by himself against Eastern Washington. For the season, he’s grabbing 13.3 per game.

Monday’s opponent, Rice, starts two forwards in 6-foot-6 sophomore Robert Martin and 6-foot-9 sophomore Austin Martin, and the Owls also bring 6-foot-8 freshman Malik Osborne off the bench. But the team will sometimes play with just one of them on the floor, which could present matchup scenarios similar to the Eastern Washington game.

UNLV is going to play its traditional two-big man lineup the vast majority of the time this season, and Menzies is going to pound the interior until opponents are forced to adjust (or surrender). And that’s going to win a lot of games. But for one night at least—even if it was only 7:04 of game time—the Rebels proved they can win another way if they absolutely have to.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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