Game Preview: UNLV takes on inconsistent Illinois team in first round of NCAA Tournament

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Kruger faces former team while looking for first NCAA Tournament win in 3 years.

When you look at the stats, UNLV and Illinois have a lot in common. Both teams average around 15 assists per game and both score 71 points per game. Both are in the bottom half of the NCAA in rebounds and Illinois holds a 2% lead on UNLV in field goal percentage. Although, when you look at what these teams have done and many other stats and style of play, UNLV seems to have the advantage in the matchup.

UNLV's season has turned out to be just fine. About halfway through the season, the team suffered a letdown loss to UC-Santa Barbara and people began to worry about just how good the team was. While UNLV's record isn't indicative of it, the Runnin' Rebels have good wins and only one bad loss. 6 of UNLV's 8 losses this season have been to teams currently ranked in the Top 15 - Louisville, San Diego State and BYU. The other two losses were to Colorado State and UC-Santa Barbara.

So while UNLV's record, 24-8 (11-5), makes them look like they simply could not beat teams with a high ranking or good record, that isn't exactly true. UNLV beat Wisconsin and Kansas State in the non-conference this season while also sweeping New Mexico and beating Colorado State on the road. Not to mention that all three of UNLV's losses to San Diego State had at least 6 point margins, including the final matchup between the two in which D.J. Gay broke a tie with 4.9 seconds left to carry the Aztecs to victory.



Overall, the season seemed to be bittersweet. The Runnin' Rebels started out hot, winning their first 9 games and getting as high as 18th in the AP poll before blowing a nine point second half lead on the road against Louisville. After that, the team didn't seem to have as much confidence. From December 15th, when the team lost to UCSB, to February 19th, when UNLV came from behind to beat Colorado State, the team didn't play like a team with meaning. Their post game was struggling and the whole team in general was in a shooting slump.

The good news is that after a horrible first half in Fort Collins, CO against Colorado State, the team exploded in the second half for 46 points and a 68-61 victory. UNLV then won at The Pit the game after and didn't lose their final 4 games of the regular season to head into the conference tournament on a 5 game win streak. UNLV beat Air Force, but lost due to more late-game heroics from D.J. Gay.

Ok, enough about UNLV, most of you already know who this team is and what their journey was. Let's talk about how the Fighting Illini's season has gone.

From what I can see, Illinois's season was similar to UNLV's. They started out hot, wining 10 of their first 11 games with their only loss coming in overtime at home to Texas. That stretch included wins over Maryland, North Carolina, and Gonzaga. Then came a bad loss to UIC (University of Illinois Chicago). UIC was one of the worst teams in the NCAA this season, going 7-24 and 2-16 in Horizon League play. Illinois actually had a 10 point lead with about 8 minutes left in the game, but blew it in the final 4 minutes of the game.

After that loss, they lost to Missouri, who was ranked 10th in the country at the time. Illinois rebounded in the beginning of conference season, beating 24th ranked Wisconsin, but really took a dip for good when they had a close road loss to Penn State. They followed that up with another loss to Wisconsin and a win over Michigan State. Back to back losses to Ohio State and Indiana certainly didn't help their cause and the Illini did not get a single win streak during their final 16 games. During that stretch, Illinois put up losses to Penn State, Wisconsin, Ohio State (2x), Indiana, Northwestern, Purdue (2x), Michigan State, and Michigan.

Now granted, most of the losses during that time were close, 57-55 loss to Penn State, 73-68 loss to Ohio State, 52-49 loss to Indiana, 71-70 loss to Northwestern, 61-57 loss to Michigan State, 60-55 loss to Michigan, but a loss is a loss and it just seems that Illinois has trouble finishing close games. The only close game they won during that stretch? A 54-52 home win over Michigan.

As of right now, UNLV and Illinois are heading in opposite directions. UNLV has won 6 of its last 7 games and Illinois has lost 10 of its last 16 games. Unless Illinois's losses are to a lot of tough Big Ten teams, then it looks like Illinois could have the wrong mentality heading into this game. Regardless of how the teams have played as of late, there are a ton of storylines in this game.

Reggie Smith, who transferred to UNLV from Marquette after the fall semester, has two of his best friends on the Illinois sideline and as a result won't be with the team for the game. Carlos Lopez, a Findlay Prep grad, will play his former teammate at Findlay Prep, D.J. Richardson. Lon Kruger used to coach the Illini and that has already had consequences. Bruce Weber, Illinois's coach, has already come out and said he recognizes a lot of offensive plays from Kruger's days at Illinois, but his defensive philosophy has changed.

The fact that Kruger's defensive style has changed since his days at Illinois gives the Runnin' Rebels an advantage that would be hard for the Illini to overcome. Since UNLV plays a full-court on-ball pressure that isn't run by any Big Ten teams, Illinois will have to have used their time before their first round game to be fully prepared for a team with an attacking mentality in mind when it comes to defense. Simple way to beat it? Get by your man, which won't be easy. Set a lot of screens and make a lot of backdoor cuts to try and get guys open, but the only way to really get your offense going against UNLV is driving the ball and forcing help defense.

As far as the defense for Illinois goes, they have an advantage - they know most of the Rebels playbook. Now, just becuase they know the playbook doesn't mean that they will be able to stop every play. From the Big Ten action I've seen this season, not many Big Ten offenses are predicated upon drive the ball, set tons of off-ball screens and force help defense which in turn creates open shots.

Illinois doesn't really have a true big man to feed on offense, and that plays into UNLV's hands. Normally, where you see UNLV get beat is when the ball gets inside since the Rebels only have one big man in the game at one time. Without that post presence to take advantage of, the Runnin' Rebels should be able to put as much pressure as they like on each of the guards as well as their shooting big men. Simple defensive strategy - play good ball pressure and force turnovers. When the Illini start turning the ball over, it seems like they just fall into a snowball effect and they blow leads, or go down by double digits.

The offensive strategy for UNLV, strangely enough, involves the inside man heavily. Without a true post presence for Illinois, good offensive post players, such as Quintrell Thomas and Carlos Lopez, can score in the post or kick the ball out for an open three if they get doubled. Feed the ball into the post and see how the defense reacts should be what the Rebels should look for, other than fast-break opportunities.

After looking at Illinois and their style of play, if the Illini aren't taking care of the ball and stroking the three pointer, then they simply aren't playing well and aren't going to win. The ball pressure for UNLV should take care of both of those issues and the Illini simply don't have the firepower down low to hurt the Rebels in the post. I see a win somewhere around 74-67 for the Runnin' Rebels, making their free throws down the stretch.

If you want some other interesting notes from ESPN videos on the game, check these out:

Who are these guys? UNLV Runnin' Rebels

Tourney Team Preview: UNLV

Quick commentary here on that video: "I'm going to go with UNLV in this matchup only because I think Illinois has faded even worse down the stretch." He must not have even glanced at the Runnin' Rebels schedule where they won 6 of their last 7 games and their 7th loss was on a last second shot by D.J. Gay so that the 7th ranked team in the country could avoid the upset. Lunardi has always disliked UNLV and there's no surprise that he doesn't seem to get that the Runnin' Rebels are playing some of their best basketball right now.

Take Your Pick: Illinois vs. UNLV

Vitale on Illinois' Tourney Draw

Digger Phelps Likes Illinois

Tourney Team Preview: Illinois

Illinois' Bruce Weber Interview

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