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Analysis: For UNLV basketball, any turnaround has to start with defense


Steve Marcus

UNR guard Jordan Caroline (24) lays up the ball by UNLV forward Brandon McCoy (44) during a game at the Thomas & Mack Center Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018.

UNLV's current four-game losing streak has turned a once-promising season into something of a mess. With just one regular-season game (and only five days) remaining before the start of the Mountain West Conference tournament, the Rebels (19-11, 8-9 MWC) are playing their worst basketball at the worst possible time.

The reason for the drastic slide is easy to pinpoint. UNLV fields a team that can score with the best of 'em; problem is, the Rebels can't defend any of 'em.

Over the last four games, UNLV has allowed its opponents to shoot a combined 50.0 percent from the field and 46.9 percent from 3-point range. Not surprisingly, three of those four losses were blowouts.

For some eye-opening context, Villanova sports the nation's most efficient offensive attack, averaging 1.097 points per possession according to Synergy Sports data. In UNLV's loss to San Diego State, the Rebels allowed SDSU to score 1.221 points per possession. Fresno State scored 1.013 points per possession. Against New Mexico it was 1.182. UNR posted a ridiculous 1.365 points per possession.

Simply put: Over the last two weeks, UNLV has turned every opponent into the nation's best offense.

The sudden collapse on the defensive end has thrown the season into turmoil, but it's not a complete surprise. The Rebels' roster isn't loaded with the kind of long, athletic players who can be molded into lockdown defenders, and head coach Marvin Menzies has employed various defensive approaches through the season in an attempt to camouflage the weaknesses.

After starting the season by playing man-to-man almost exclusively, UNLV has morphed into a heavy matchup zone team over the second half of the season. The zone allows Menzies to keep his big men closer to the basket, but over the last four games opponents have been able to expose it.

For everything Brandon McCoy has brought to the team as a freshman (team-high 16.9 points per game on 55.6 percent shooting), opposing teams are now making it a point in their scouting reports to attack him on the defensive end.

In Wednesday's massacre at the Thomas & Mack Center, UNR spread the floor with shooters, cleared out the middle and put McCoy in high pick-and-roll situations over and over again. The Rebels' help defenders had to stick with dangerous shooters ringing the arc, so McCoy was left on an island with Caleb Martin, the best pure scorer in the conference.

Here's how that went:

McCoy is new to defense and not a natural rim protector, but he's got to do a better job of taking away clear lanes to the basket. Just getting in the way of driving ball-handlers would probably bring some of those points-per-possession numbers back into an acceptable range.

McCoy doesn't come out looking great on those particular plays, but the defensive breakdowns of the last two weeks can't be laid entirely at his feet. The Rebels' guards and wings have not been staying in front of dribblers or closing out on shooters, and that has led to too many open 3-pointers.

If it sounds like there's a lot of work to be done over the next half-week, it's because there is. Thirty games into the season is probably too late for a complete defensive overhaul, but UNLV has been breaking down far too often, and it will be up to Menzies to find a way to stop the bleeding before the Mountain West tournament opens on Wednesday.

A once-promising season depends on it.

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

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