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Mbacke Diong’s status uncertain as Rebels prep for Air Force

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Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels forward Cheikh Mbacke Diong (34) hangs on the rim after dunking against the Loyola Marymount Lions at the Thomas & Mack Center Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018.

If the Rebels want to remain alone atop the Mountain West standings by winning at Air Force on Wednesday, they may have to do it without Mbacke Diong.

The sophomore center will be a game-time decision due to an ankle injury, head coach Marvin Menzies announced Monday.

“He’s still under evaluation,” Menzies said. “It was a bad sprain. We’re not sure how long it’s going to take.”

Diong was injured on the final play of the first half of UNLV’s win at New Mexico on Jan. 8 and did not play in the second half.

Diong started the first 12 games of the season, then was moved to the bench when Menzies elevated sophomore guard Amauri Hardy to the starting lineup for the beginning of conference play.

Diong is averaging 6.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in 21.5 minutes per game. His main contributions come on the defensive end, where the 6-foot-11 rim protector rates as one of UNLV’s most impactful players. Diong’s 1.7 blocks per game and block rate of 8.0 percent are tops among the Rebels.

Though UNLV played good basketball without Diong in the second half against New Mexico, the Rebels have generally been better with him on the floor in Mountain West play. In the 37 minutes Diong has been on the court during the three MWC games, UNLV has outscored opponents 76-62, giving Diong a plus/minus rating of +15.1 per 40 minutes. In 83 minutes without Diong, the Rebels have enjoyed a 150-139 advantage (+5.3 per 40).

UNLV would be running perilously low on big men if Diong is unable to suit up, as the Rebels have already lost power forward Shakur Juiston and center Cheickna Dembele to season-ending injuries. Freshman Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua has been starting at center since the lineup change, and he may be asked to play extended minutes against Air Force.

After Tchamwa Tchatchoua, 6-foot-8 forward Tervell Beck and 6-foot-5 walk-on Nick Blair could be emergency options in the frontcourt.

Menzies is hopeful his reserves can step up against Air Force.

“I have confidence and faith in them to improve every single practice,” Menzies said. “But are they ready to handle such an intricate offense with [Air Force’s] disciplined group of guys? That’s to be seen. To be honest, I really don’t know. I felt a little better after today’s practice, but I didn’t feel too good yesterday after practice.”

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

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