San Diego State has had a magical season so far. They started ranked 25th in the AP Poll and 26th in the Coaches Poll and have gone 17-0 since, riding their way to a #6 ranking in both of the AP and Coaches Polls. They are now 1 of only 5 unbeatens remaining in the sport of College Basketball and have a legitimate chance at going undefeated until the NCAA Tournament. In many expert's brackets, San Diego State is either a 2 or a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which would almost guarantee a deep run into the NCAA Tournament. A magical season may be an understatement for San Diego State this year.
So far I've talked about San Diego State, but UNLV is no slouch either. The Rebels opened up the season unranked, but quickly got into the rankings after being a then-ranked Wisconsin team in their 3rd game on the season. They then proceeded to win the 76 Classic and get up to a rank of 19th and an undefeated record before their matchup against a ranked Louisville team. The Rebels lost that game and followed it up with a bad loss to UC-Santa Barbara.
That dropped the Rebels out of the rankings, but a win over #11 Kansas State vaulted them back into the rankings heading into their conference opener against BYU. They came out strong in the first half, but the Cougars ran away with the lead in the second half, wining by a final score of 89-78. That was an ugly hit for UNLV, but the Rebels responded amazingly on Saturday, defeating a decent TCU squad by 34 points, 83-49.
That sets up tonight's matchup where UNLV travels to San Diego and Viejas Arena to take on an undefeated #6 San Diego State team that has a possibility of going undefeated this season.
Both San Diego State and UNLV thrive off of turnovers. They play good defense, get 8+ turnovers a game and turn them into points at the other end that almost always end up being crucial. Unfortunately, when you have two teams that both play that kind of style, most of the time neither team is able to take advantage of that. As a result you will get a sloppy game by both sides (See: 2010 MWC Championship game) that tends to give the advantage to the team with size.
To counteract this and make sure that SDSU doesn't get a size advantage like they did in last year's MWC Championship game, Lon Kruger is looking to employ a Mike Dantoniesque offense. Not quite what Dantoni runs, where you run the ball down the court, fling up a shot and play no defense, but a quick paced offense with not a lot of holding on to the ball.
This keeps the game from slowing down to the point where there is a foul or missed shot on almost every possession where San Diego State could use their great post presence to simply take over. Instead they will try to keep the ball moving so that the defense is always moving. The reason the Rebels need that defense to keep moving is because they are more than likely going to be facing a lot of that zone that 3-2 zone that gives UNLV fits.
With the defense constantly having to move, that gives the UNLV offense more opportunities to cut to the middle of the key. In a zone you always want to get the ball to the middle of the key or the free throw line and the reason why would be to force more than one player to converge on you, giving someone else a wide open shot. If UNLV is able to get that ball to the free throw line or the middle of the key early and often, then the offense should be successful.
On the San Diego State side, it's almost the opposite offensive gameplan. As I said earlier, SDSU has a huge inside advantage with Kawhi Leonhard and Malcom Thomas. In order for SDSU to really take advantage of this, they are going to have to slow the game down and make it as boring as possible. They need to take as much time of the shot clock as they can before getting their shot in order to keep the pace of the game from getting out of hand.
Other than trying to control the clock, also look for San Diego State to try their best to get the UNLV defenders away from pressuring their ball handlers. The reason for this is that UNLV is all about ball pressure. The Rebels are known for forcing turnovers and bad shots by relentlessly swatting at the ball and stopping your penetration. It is just a souped up man-to-man defense. Man-to-man defenses are simple to beat, if you are prepared for them.
The way you beat a man-to-man defense is by setting screen after screen in order to either get mismatches or an open lane to the basket. The simplest form of this would be to have an on-ball screen occupy the rest of the defenders while an off-ball screen creates an open cutting man to the basket. That allows the driving player to do a simple bounce pass to the cutting player for an easy layup. Here is an example video I made of the play:
That is just one kind of play that would work, but really any series of screens will work because that either creates open lanes or mismatches. For San Diego State, they should look to run a lot of screens when UNLV is playing a man-to-man defense (almost all of the time), and little to none plays involving cuts.
The UNLV defense will have its hands full for sure when it comes to tonight's game. They are going to have to deal with the post presence down low for SDSU as well as quick guards, but what's really going to allow them to dig in defensively is scoring in the half-court. That allows for UNLV to set up that full-court pressure defense that forces teams to start their sets 10-15 seconds after when they normally start their sets. Other than score, the UNLV defense is going to need to switch on almost every screen. That does create mismatches, but a mismatch is better than an open lane to the basket.
In almost all UNLV games this season, the Rebels have struggled against the zone. As a result, expect San Diego State to come out and play a lot of zone, specifically 3-2 zone. That allows for SDSU to keep UNLV's drive and kick offense to a minimum by keeping the guards beyond the three point line and also allows for both Malcom Thomas and Kawhi Leonhard to stop anything in the middle of the key.
My Prediction? I'm a UNLV fan, so I have to go with UNLV, 67-63. Do I think that has a great chance of happening? Not really, but I can't predict UNLV losing...
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