January 18, 2018 Currently: 56° | Complete forecast

For UNLV basketball, turnaround starts with finishing

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L.E. Baskow

UNLV Rebels forward Brandon McCoy (44) is fouled from behind by Arizona Wildcats guard Rawle Alkins (1) as he attempts a shot during their game at the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017.

The 2016-17 campaign was filled with a series of low points for the UNLV basketball team, but no moment pulled the Rebels deeper into the abyss than their 76-72 loss at San Jose State.

On Jan. 28 of that season, the ragtag Rebels went to the Event Center Arena expecting to pick up a win against the Mountain West’s perennial doormat. Instead, UNLV played its worst game of the year. Marvin Menzies’ crew shot 35.6 percent as a team, and most dispiritingly, could not make easy baskets. On shots designated as layup and dunk attempts, UNLV converted just 8-of-23.

On one play, senior guard Uche Ofoegbu botched a breakaway dunk, missed the shot, and got tagged with a technical foul for hanging on the rim. Yes, the Rebels actually turned an uncontested dunk into net negative points.

It was the lowest of the lows.

After that game, Menzies was exasperated by the inability to make shots around the rim.

“I wish I knew the answer to that one,” Menzies said in his postgame press conference. “Very unique set of circumstances where they’re missing that many layups. I can’t tell you I’ve experienced this before. We’ve got to keep trying to figure this thing out.”

Needless to say, the UNLV team that travels to San Jose State for Wednesday’s game is a completely different animal. These Rebels are an impressive 11-3, and though they’re coming off a home loss to Boise State, they opened as 11.5-point road favorites.

The biggest factor in the dramatic, 11-month turnaround? They’ve figured out that whole finishing-around-the-rim thing. UNLV is making 65.1 percent of its close-range field goal attempts this season, compared to last year’s horrifying 51.5 percent. Junior forward Shakur Juiston (74.2 percent around the rim) and freshman center Brandon McCoy (70.8 percent) in particular have led the charge.

Their finishing ability has boosted the team’s overall efficiency. Last year, UNLV scored 0.832 points per possession, per Synergy Sports data, which ranked 322nd in the nation. This year, the Rebels have jumped to 0.998 points per possession (No. 41).

In a somewhat surprising development, San Jose State may actually provide a bit of a test for the Rebels finishers. So far this season, SJSU is allowing opponents to shoot just 49.0 percent and score 1.005 points per possession around the basket (not including post-ups), which ranks the Spartans 44th in the country when it comes to interior defense.

That’s where Wednesday’s game will likely be decided. UNLV doesn’t take or make many 3-pointers, and they don’t allow opponents many open 3’s, either. The Rebels are comfortable playing in tight spaces, and if they continue to finish at a high rate, they’ll likely win comfortably.

It may not make up for last year's loss at San Jose State — that one will take a while to forget — but it's a chance for the Rebels to show how far they've come when they're close to the basket.

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

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