It's no secret that UNLV's basketball season ended with quite a thud. After a roller coaster ride of a season, UNLV got blown out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Illinois, 73-62. The Fighting Illini
got past sliced through UNLV's pressure defense like they were a knife cutting through cake. Illinois put roadblock signs around the key on the defensive end and as a result, UNLV had a tough time scoring.
It was obvious that there were problems with how UNLV was playing during the Illinois game, but that wasn't the first time the Runnin' Rebels had a tough time scoring. There was a multitude of problems for the Runnin' Rebels this season, but they are all easily fixable. WIth almost the entire team returning for UNLV next season, we should see a very good team - but only if they can fix the problems they ran into this season.
When trying to fix a problem, you first have to identify it, so let's go ahead and identify the problems UNLV had this season.
Step 1: Identifying the problem
During the regular season, the Runnin' Rebels ran into trouble scoring the ball and that was the most probable cause for UNLV's mid-season slump. So what was the problem with the offense? During many broadcasts from the 2009-2010 season, announcers would comment, "This team lives by the three and dies by the three." This past season you did not hear that, but the saying still rang true for UNLV.
In UNLV's 9-0 start, they shot upwards of 45% from three point range. After their loss to Louisville, the number dropped significantly, shooting under 35% until after the Colorado State win. Strangely enough, the average went up over 40% again during the Runnin' Rebels late season run. One of the keys to winning for UNLV should be obvious by now, when the Runnin' Rebels shoot well, particularly from behind the three point line, they are tough to beat.
Another key stat that is strangelyrelated to UNLV winning is how high their turnover count is when compared to the opposing team. When UNLV has the lead in the turnover department, they win games. The reason behind this is where UNLV is at a disadvantage (in the post) they make up for at where they have the advantage (in the turnover department). If the Runnin' Rebels are struggling to turnover their opponent, then they will have to shoot upwards of 45% to win, more on that will come later in the post. The fact of the matter is that if UNLV can manage to lead the opposing team by 5 or more turnovers, then it becomes much easier to win.
Now both of those issues you saw were represented during the ups and downs of the regular season, but the Runnin' Rebels thrashing against Illinois presented a couple more problems that had not yet been seen. Illinois was able to destroy UNLV's pressure defense and pack the key to slow the Runnin' Rebels offense to a halt. Illinois was one of the few teams on the season who were able to beat the pressure defense out and then running tons of backdoor cuts. With no one in the middle to play help defense, when a man would get open on a backdoor cut, the Illini got open layup after open layup.
UNLV's struggles on the offensive end could have easily been solved by making a couple of their three point shots. Becuase UNLV couldn't make an outside shot if their life depended on it, Illinois was able to load up on the inside. As a result, the Runnin' Rebels couldn't get any penetration - which led to more bricks being fired up from three point land.
Now we know what the issues were. UNLV didn't have consistent three point shooting, occasionally had issues with turnovers, and they had nowhere to turn when the pressure defense failed.Let's identify how these problems are going to be fixed, if they can be.
Step 2: How to fix the problems
Some of UNLV's issues will be fixed by new personnel and the lineup hopefully not changing due to injuries, such as their 3 point shooting woes. Last season, UNLV was lacking the sharpshooter who could hit a three whenever the Runnin' Rebels needed it, and with Kendall Wallace returning from a torn ACL that sidelined him all of last season, that position will be filled. Another issue was that the players who started off hot from behind the arc either fell victim to injuries or lost their role in the offense.
Oscar Bellfield started the season shooting over 40% from range, but a wrist injury just before the conference season began hindered his ability to shoot the ball well until the final few games of the season. Chace Stanback also started the season like Bellfield, but dropped off the map just before conference season. This was because Stanback had lost his role in the offense when Tre'Von Willis worked his way back into the starting lineup, and as a result Stanback wasn't as sure of himself when preparing to pull the trigger on deep shots.
As long as the Runnin' Rebels can avoid off-season issues and injuries during the season that would affect the shooting motion (An arm or hand injury), I think they should be back to normal regarding their long range shooting next season. The good news is that they don't need to shoot great from three point range every game in order to win.
When UNLV matches up with other teams, they have their advantages and disadvantages. They can make up for their disadvantage with either one of their two advantages. UNLV's advantages are the fact that they can score points in multiple ways, they can either hit threes and make their offense click in the halfcourt, or they can force 15+ easy baskets by creating turnovers. If they are able to do either of those, then it balances out the advantages and disadvantages, but if they are able to do both (See: 9-0 start to 2010-2011 season) they are very tough to beat. If the Runnin' Rebels can use at least one of these advantages, they can hang around with anyone. If they do both, they can beat anyone.
While UNLV having two ways to score the basketball is great, that second option might not be there at most games if they can't fix the problems that were found during the Illinois game. With the blueprint now out there on how to beat the pressure defense, you better believe that the Runnin' Rebels will see it more often. The question is how do you stop it? The only way to stop that attack from working is to stop playing a man-to-man defense and switch to some sort of zone.
The Runnin' Rebels personnel could allow for either a 2-3 zone or a 3-2 zone depending on what Kruger wants to do. If Mike Moser grasps the system quick enough, then we could easily see a 2-3 zone. Put Marshall and Bellfield up top, Moser and Stanback on either side of the baseline, and Quintrell Thomas in the middle for the starting lineup. Stanback and Moser are 6-9 and 6-8, respectively, and could definitely handle any sort of big man (with help defense from Quintrell Thomas) along the baseline.
If the Runnin' Rebels want to play more of a pressure zone, then they could switch to a 3-2 zone. This would allow for more on-ball pressure and trapping, but would also force Kruger to do something he only did once during the 2010-2011 season: play two big men at the same time. I wrote a post during this past season about how a two big man rotation would work and how it could improve the team dramatically, but the lineup could easily change this off-season when it comes to the men in the post. It has been reported that Kruger is currently recruiting 2 or 3 big men for the upcoming recruiting class and if the Runnin' Rebels manage to get one or two big men into the rotation, the decision becomes even easier.
Now these schemes most likely won't become the main defense, but it's simply something to fall back on if the pressure man-to-man defense fails.
So far all the issues UNLV seemed to deal with during the season, there really is only two solutions necessary. One, fixing the three point shooting woes, can be fixed by simple personnel issues, and the other, the man-to-man defense getting beat, is simply fixed by having some sort of a zone to fall back on.
So where do we go from here? We practice and integrate these zones into scrimmages so that the team becomes accustomed to this kind of play. We recruit to the best of our abilities, improve to the best of our abilities, and make the team as best as it can be.
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