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Analysis: Can the Runnin’ Rebels win with defense?


Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels forward Joel Ntambwe (24) guards UC Riverside Highlanders guard Dominick Pickett (22) during a game at the Thomas & Mack Center Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018.

The Rebel Room

The court and the cannon

Mike Grimala and Case Keefer analyze the optimism stemming from the UNLV basketball team's two-game win streak before turning to football and the Rebels' attempt to win back the Fremont Cannon.

About 12 minutes into UNLV’s win over Oakland on Friday, the Rebels’ defense was compromised.

Oakland had used quick passing in the backcourt to slip through UNLV’s press, and Golden Grizzlies’ guard James Beck caught the ball on the left wing with a clear path to the basket for an easy layup. Beck put the ball on the floor for two quick dribbles and rose up for the finish, but he wasn’t fast enough, as three Rebels converged to meet him under the rim.

Freshman forward Joel Ntambwe was first on the scene, as he flew in from the weakside and planted his feet to draw a charge. Beck had to jump-stop around Ntambwe, which gave UNLV forward Shakur Juiston enough time to catch up to the play from behind and challenge the shot. And finally, center Mbacke Diong was able to disengage from a screen, trail Beck into the paint and reject the layup attempt.

From there, Diong collected the loose ball and passed it ahead to start a fast break. Seconds later, Juiston slammed home an alley-oop dunk.

Mbacke Diong block, Shakur Juiston dunk

It was a flashy finish to a sequence that would not have occurred last year, when the Rebels struggled to defend as a team. Through three games this season, however, UNLV looks like a totally different group on the defensive end.

Though the Rebels have not faced top competition yet, the early returns on that side of the court have to be encouraging for head coach Marvin Menzies. UNLV is currently allowing just 0.781 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports data; last year UNLV allowed 0.906 points per possession.

Three games is a small sample size, obviously, but there is reason to believe the defense is for real. Menzies has made it a point to add longer, quicker players, and the roster now reflects that vision, with freshman Ntmabwe and sophomore Diong serving as the poster boys for gangly, defensive-minded stoppers.

Diong is the centerpiece of the effort to turn around the defense. The 6-foot-11 Senegal native is a mile long with quick feet, and he possesses a defensive awareness that last year’s post protector, Brandon McCoy, simply did not. Diong has started all three games this season and currently has an absurd block rate of 14.3 percent.

Ntambwe was a surprise starter on opening night, but it has quickly become evident why Menzies likes the 6-foot-9 wing. He plays like a wild man on the defensive end, with 100 percent intensity and 100 percent commitment to winning every loose ball. That has helped the Rebels set a defensive tone.

In addition to the two young Slendermen, seniors Juiston and Noah Robotham have performed very well. Juiston has held his opponents to 1-of-12 shooting so far, while Robotham has already proved to be a significant defensive upgrade over last year’s starter, 5-foot-9 Jordan Johnson.

Aside from a second-half slip-up in the season-opening loss to Loyola Marymount (in which UNLV allowed Loyola to shoot 51.7 percent and score 43 points), the Rebels have held opponents to 35.6 percent from the field this season.

UNLV is still searching for its offensive identity, but it looks like the Rebels might just be good enough to win with defense in the meantime.

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

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