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Rebels seek to regain inside advantage against San Jose State

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Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (30) goes up to dunk the ball against UC Riverside at the Thomas & Mack Center Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018.

What is the UNLV basketball team good at?

The Rebels aren’t a good shooting team, and the team defense comes and goes. Turnovers have been an issue at times. Consistency has been hard to come by.

The one thing UNLV has been able to count on this season — at least until Wednesday’s humiliating loss at Air Force — has been size. The Rebels are No. 11 in the nation in rebounding margin, No. 18 in rebounds per game and No. 3 in offensive rebounds. If the team has any kind of identity, it has been built on controlling the paint against smaller teams.

That was good enough to help UNLV to a 3-0 start in Mountain West play, but those days may be over, at least for the foreseeable future. The Rebels began the season with a stable of talented big men, but injuries have whittled down the frontcourt rotation. Senior power forward Shakur Juiston and junior center Cheickna Dembele are both out for the year, and sophomore center Mbacke Diong is out for an unknown length of time with an ankle injury. Against Air Force, the only true big man on the active roster was 6-foot-8 freshman Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua.

Despite not starting a player taller than 6-foot-6, Air Force out-rebounded the Rebels, 35-31. It was the first game all season that UNLV ended up on the short side of the rebounding column. And without Diong under the rim to deter shots, the rest of the Rebels watched as Air Force converted layup after layup. The Falcons outscored UNLV 56-29 on points in the paint.

Menzies said the game was lost on the interior — something that hasn’t happened much to UNLV this season, even when the team has performed poorly.

“I thought [Air Force] really took it to us from a physical standpoint inside,” Menzies said. “That was the first time we’ve been out-rebounded this season, and that was indicative of the physical play.”

Diong’s status is uncertain for Saturday’s home game against San Jose State, so the Rebels may once again find themselves without any discernible size advantage. If anything, SJSU may have the upper hand, as the Spartans start a pair of 6-foot-10 big men in junior Michael Steadman and senior Oumar Barry. Both are capable scorers (combined 21.4 points per game) and rebounders (13.3 per game), and they are helping San Jose State post a rebounding rate of 50.9 percent, which ranks fourth among Mountain West teams.

If Diong is unable to suit up, Menzies will have to figure out a way to compensate for the lack of size. If the Rebels can’t figure out a new way to win, they’ll be in danger of losing a second straight game to an inferior league opponent.

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

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