Boise State is embracing an emotional rollercoaster Wednesday night as the Broncos take a 6-1 league record to the Thomas & Mack Center.
Before tipping off the fifth game under interim head coach Todd Simon, UNLV will be recognizing a local hoops star. Freddie Thompson, an off-ball guard in 1979 under Jerry Tarkanian, passed away in April after a one-month battle with pancreatic cancer. A role model in the basketball community, Thompson was the assistant coach at Canyon Springs High School in 2011 as he helped his son, Boise State senior point guard Mikey Thompson, to a Nevada state championship.
As a junior last season, Thompson shot only 36.3% from the floor and was suspended for three games for a violation of team rules in February. Since the passing of his father, the fifth-year senior has flipped the script, becoming a selfless leader and has now established himself as one of the top guards in the league. Thompson leads the MWC in assist-to-turnover ratio and has nearly doubled his shooting percentage on two-point field goals. He has transformed from a distraction off the court to the heart and soul of Leon Rice's Broncos in just 11 months.
As for UNLV, the Runnin' Rebels are overcoming an obstacle of their own. Heading into the season with lofty expectations and a talented roster, fifth year head coach Dave Rice was fired January 10th after an 0-3 slump to begin conference play. Rice had no trouble bringing highly-touted talent to campus, but could not find the formula of translating talent to victories, losing two NCAA Tournament games as a 5 and 6 seed.
The show must go on, however. Todd Simon was named interim head coach after the ousting of Rice, and has the Runnin' Rebels righting the ship. The Simon-led team won its first three games by double digits before falling to Nevada 65-63 on Saturday. Each game is important for UNLV from here on out. Although the Rebels have a very slim shot at the NCAA Tournament, if Simon can show significant improvement with this roster, he might extend his stay into next season.
Matchup - Boise State Broncos @ UNLV Runnin' Rebels in Las Vegas, Nevada, 11:00 PM Eastern, Thomas & Mack Center
Radio/TV/Stream - Radio: 670 AM KBOI, TV: CBS Sports Network
Vegas - UNLV 4-point favorites according to OddsShark
Win/Loss Records - Boise State 15-5 (6-1), UNLV 12-8 (3-4)
KenPom Rankings - Boise State 74th, UNLV 69th
UNLV enters Wednesday night with a chip on its shoulder after a dismal performance against Nevada, a game the Rebels should have won. Nevada shot a dismal 32.8% and trailed late, but UNLV choked at the free throw line, leaving 14 points off the board and coughed up the basketball 16 times. The play in the Nevada game was reminiscent of the showing that Dave Rice's team displayed before his firing. If the Rebels match the intensity of Simon's first three games on Wednesday, UNLV should have a great chance of protecting home court.
Pace of play and spacing will be an important factor for both Boise State and UNLV. The Rebels have a number of imposing shot blockers, ranking 20th in the country in block percentage. Because UNLV bases its defense on rim protecting, it will be interesting to see how Simon plans to combat Boise State's perimeter shooting. The Broncos typically have five players who can launch from deep at all times, which will stretch out UNLV's defense. If UNLV is lazy on the perimeter, Boise State will make the Rebels pay. Few teams take as many shots from deep as Boise State. The only loss the Broncos have suffered in conference play was at home against San Diego State. SDSU shut down Boise State from three, not allowing a triple until Nick Duncan ended a 16-shot drought with 20 seconds left in the game. In Boise's victory at Wyoming, Lonnie Jackson came out of a slump and drained seven 3s to lead the Broncos. UNLV can't afford to let Nick Duncan (33.6%) or Anthony Drmic (35.8%) light up the scoreboard from behind the arc.
UNLV, the Mountain West leader in forced turnovers, had troubles of its own Saturday against Nevada, committing 16 turnovers. The Rebels rank 309th in the country in turnovers, and Boise State has thrived in games where it can convert turnovers to easy layups and dunks.
Stephen Zimmerman will have an interesting night being defended by Nick Duncan and James Webb III. Webb is a freakishly athletic 6-9 forward who is very active in passing lanes and reach-in steals. Duncan has a much bigger frame than Webb, and is an underrated post defender who shines against taller matchups. The ultra-gifted Zimmerman will have his hands full with Boise's pesky defense and will need to take advantage and be assertive for UNLV to scratch out a victory.
It's a huge week for the Runnin' Rebels. UNLV hosts the top two squads in the conference this week in Boise State and San Diego State, and is desperate for any victories that could generate NCAA Tournament bubble consideration.
Prediction: UNLV 75, Boise State 71