UNLV’s chances of playing in the NCAA Tournament will come down to winning three or four straight games in the Mountain West Conference Championship, depending on where the Rebels finish in the league standings. It’s not the outcome the program expected, but with the tournament played in its home arena, winning the thing isn’t out of the question. The Rebels last won the crown in 2008—here are three keys to doing it again this season.
Keep opponents guessing. The Rebels recently played a full game of zone defense, by far the most Rice has run in his time at UNLV. Whether it took the players this long to excel in the zone or Rice simply wasn’t comfortable with it yet, the Rebels’ 2-3 defense with athletic players filling passing lanes always seemed like it could be an asset. Now we have evidence that it both works pretty well and gets the Rebels excited.
When they’re not thinking as much, the Rebels have more energy to focus on offense, which seems to matter to this team. It would be beneficial for UNLV to throw both man and zone defenses at their opponents to keep them on their toes.
Get the ball inside. Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith are tremendous assets in the Mountain West. UNLV tends to forget this sometimes. Birch is averaging basically a double-double in league games, and although his offensive arsenal hasn’t developed much since last year he’s still a great defender who finishes well at the basket and runs the floor well. And while Smith is a defensive liability, he can clean up well around the rim.
Other guys, like Bryce Dejean-Jones and Deville Smith, can lead the team for stretches, but if the Rebels are going to rattle off three (or four) straight wins it’s going to be because their bigs, especially Birch, carried them there.
Stay healthy. Obviously this is mostly out of the Rebels’ hands, but if they’re going to make a run they can’t afford to be missing any key pieces. Freshman Christian Wood didn’t play last weekend because of flu-like symptoms and Roscoe Smith was expected to miss the home finale against San Diego State because of a concussion. UNLV needs those two at full strength and has to hope that no one else goes down.
Mountain West Conference Championship March 12-15, times & prices vary. Thomas & Mack Center, 739-3267.