What: Nevada Wolf Pack (7-8, 2-0) at UNLV Rebels (10-5, 1-1)
When: January 8, 2014 at 6:15 p.m. PT
Where: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas
Where to Watch: CBS Sports Network
It's early in the Mountain West basketball conference season, but on this Wednesday, where teams are playing either their second or third conference games, there are numerous games that have huge implications toward the standings and overall momentum. One of the marquee matchups will feature the in-state rivals Nevada Wolf Pack and UNLV Rebels.
The Wolf Pack are traveling to Vegas with lots of confidence coming off back to back conference wins over San Jose State and Wyoming. While these teams are not MWC basketball powerhouses like New Mexico or San Diego State, it does show growth for Nevada who last year finished with only three total wins in conference.
The Rebels on the other hand are coming off a low point in their year following a 75-68 home loss to Air Force. Looking to find some consistency will be a big factor for UNLV going into the heart of the MWC schedule as they have looked impressive at times, only lost by five to #1 Arizona, but have also looked dreadful, see loss to Air Force.
Here are three keys that will determine whether Nevada gets their first win in nine tries against the Rebels, or if UNLV will continue their dominance over the Wolf Pack.
The battle on the boards, as in every game, will be a decisive factor. UNLV is one of best rebounding teams in the nation, averaging 42.7 per game with a +5.5 rebounding margin. But Nevada is no push over, averaging 34.4 per game with a +2.5 rebounding margin. The key to winning the rebounding margin is to get offensive rebounds and prevent the opposition from getting any. The Rebels big men, Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch, are averaging a combined eight offensive rebounds a game, which could be problematic for Nevada's undersized frontcourt that features AJ West and Cole Huff. West (3.3 offensive rebounds a game, 7.8 total) should provide an even matchup against Berch, but Huff, a true small forward, should struggle against the bigger and more physical Smith. UNLV will have the edge but if Nevada can limit the advantage, the game should be close.
The Three Ball
Nevada does not shoot an excessive amount of threes but it does play a big part in their offense. Often for the Wolf Pack, early and effective shooting opens up driving lanes later in games. The Rebels on the other hand defend the three very well and run opponents off the line, forcing them to drive and deal with the big men down low. If Nevada can gain momentum on the road by knocking down some threes and quiet the crowd, the Wolf Pack may have enough to pull off the upset.
We know Deonte Burton of the Wolf Pack will get his points (21.8 ppg). Same goes for Rebel Bryce DeJean-Jones (14.4 ppg). But who else will step up? Can a player come off the bench and score 15+ points? A performance like that from an unheralded player on either team will set that team up for victory. For Nevada look for that player to be senior small forward Jerry Evans Jr., who is also the best perimeter defender on the team. For UNLV this player could be senior guard Kevin Olekiabe. Olekiabe, a former Fresno State Bulldog, who has a solid history of games against Nevada, often lighting the Wolf Pack up from three. Evans or Olekiabe won't be the best players on the floor Wednesday night, but they could easily determine the outcome.