Game Preview: Falcons looks for upset bid against surging Runnin' Rebels



UNLV takes on historically scrappy Air Force squad in first round of the Mountain West Tournament.

Join our live Open Thread for the Mountain West Quarterfinals.

Compared to the two previous seasons, this year's Air Force basketball team has played well. The Falcons went 15-14 (6-10) this season and have either won or hung around with every Mountain West team, excluding BYU. Their best win on the season was a home victory over rival Colorado State, although they came close on Saturday to getting a road win over New Mexico. Although the season has been better, it is obviously not enough for the Falcons to make the NCAA Tournament. They will have to win the Mountain West tournament in order to make it, and they have the opportunity to take the first step towards that when they play UNLV at 8:30 P.M. PT tonight.

The Runnin' Rebels have had an up and down season, but they are currently a lock for the NCAA Tournament. The only thing that would happen to the Rebels if they lost tonight's game would be a drop in seeding. The main reason for this is their very respectable non-conference wins over Wisconsin and Kansas State (RPI of 13 and 19, respectively). That, combined with a road win over Colorado State and a sweep of New Mexico, has UNLV securely in the field. But just because the Runnin' Rebels are securely in the field doesn't mean that a loss here wouldn't be devastating. A loss would drop the Runnin' Rebels to a 9 or 10 seed, which would mean a tough first round opponent and then a date with a 1 seed in the second round.

In the two other times that UNLV and Air Force have squared off this season, the Runnin' Rebels gutted out two ugly wins, 64-52 and 49-42. Both times the game was played at Air Force's slow-down, defensive style and as a result, the games turned out to be close. Since those two meetings, UNLV's post game has clicked in and the Runnin' Rebels have been tough to stop on the offensive end, it won't be as simple for the Falcons to play their style.

Air Force was good a few years ago, when Jeff Bzedlik was the coach, but have dropped off ever since then. Fans were calling for the head of Jeff Reynolds after two very disappointing seasons in which the team simply lacked effort. This season, Reynolds seems to have kept his job for one more year after turning the team around to get a winning record and a 6 seed in the Conference Tournament. Keep in mind that this conference season, Air Force was three points away from sweeping Colorado State as well as other games in which the Falcons competed.

Air Force has been good in the NCAA Tournament in recent years, no matter what the record has been. The Falcons have either won or come within at least 5 points of winning in every MWC Tournament game over the past 5 years. If Jeff Reynolds knows anything, it's how to get a team ready for the Mountain West Tournament.

UNLV is no slouch in the Mountain West Tournament either. The Runnin' Rebels have a 19-7 record in the Tournament since the first tournament took place in 1999. Part of that may be due to their advantage of playing on their home floor, but you have to give some credit to Lon Kruger for getting the Rebels two Mountain West championships and a runner-up during his tenure at UNLV.

As usual, this game should be of contrasting styles, as UNLV loves to play a fast game while Jeff Reynolds preaches great defense and a methodical game, the only question is which will prevail. In the two previous meetings this season, Air Force controlled the tempo.

Whether that was the Falcons containing the Runnin' Rebels or simply lackluster offensive nights by UNLV is yet to be known, but we do know this. Since the second half against Colorado State, the UNLV offense has been on a tear. UNLV's three headed monster in the post (Quintrell Thomas, Brice Massamba, and Carlos Lopez) has accounted for 30+ PPG and 25+ RPG. The Runnin' Rebels, as a team, have come out of a horrible shooting slump. And as a result, the team is on a five game winning streak heading into tonight's game.

My Prediction? A double-digit win from the Rebels.

 

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