UNLV Runnin’ Rebels (4-6, 1-0 MWC) at BYU Cougars (6-4, 0-0 WCC)
Date and Location: Saturday, December 7th at 12pm PT. Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah
Watch and Listen: BYUtv and ESPN Las Vegas 1100AM/100.9FM
UNLV opened conference play with an 81-80 double overtime victory on the road against Fresno State. Donnie Tillman stepped up for his best performance as a Rebel with 28 points, and Bryce Hamilton added 21 points and 14 rebounds. UNLV was severely short-handed; they were without starters Elijah Mitrou-Long and Jonah Antonio. Mitrou-Long will miss six to eight weeks with a broken thumb and Antonio is still out with a hand injury.
With the Rebels losing players, the Cougars made a big addition. Senior forward Yoeli Childs returns for BYU after he was suspended for errors in his paper work during the NBA draft process and he missed the first nine games for the Cougars. In his return last week against Utah, he scored 29 points and had seven rebounds in an overtime loss to the Utes.
These two teams have a lot of history between them as former Mountain West Conference members. Last year, the Rebels and Cougars renewed its rivalry with a home and home. Noah Robotham hit a game winning three-pointer at the buzzer to give UNLV a 92-90 overtime victory. This matchup will be the 36th overall between the former conference rivals, UNLV leads the series 19-16. Some of the most memorable meetings between these two teams have come in the Mountain West Tournament.
Both teams met in the first Mountain West Tournament Final, and top seeded UNLV, led by senior Mark Dickel, defeated sixth seeded BYU 79-56. It was several more years until they met again. They played in back-to-back tournament finals in 2007 and 2008. With coach Lon Kruger at the helm, the Rebels took down the regular season champion Cougars 78-70 in 2007 and won comfortably 76-61 in 2008. Their final meeting in the tournament was in the conference semifinals in 2010, UNLV upset 14th ranked BYU 70-66.
Three Keys to a UNLV Victory
Finish at the Rim
BYU is 337th in the country in blocks, with 13 total blocks in 10 games. Some of that is likely due to the absence of Childs. UNLV has had a hard time finishing lay ups and shots near the basket. The Rebels are only shooting 48% on two-point field goals, which is 246th in the country. UNLV will have a chance to get some easy looks against BYU. They will need Amauri Hardy, Mbacke Diong, and Tillman to all get to the rim and finish. Points will be at a premium against the high-scoring Cougars, the Rebels cannot squander any chances at easy baskets.
Defend the 3
BYU shoots a lot of three-pointers, and they make a lot of them. They are 15th in the nation in three-point percentage at over 40%. UNLV has not been terrible at defending the three. As a team, opponents only shoot 34% from three, which is 129th in the country. The Rebels play a pack-line defense that clogs the lane and denies lay-ups. A down side of that defense is that it can leave space for the opposing team to shoot open three-pointers. UNLV cannot lose track of BYU’s shooters or else they will see BYU shoot three-pointers all game.
Big Games from the “Big Three”
Three players were huge in UNLV’s conference win against Fresno State; Hardy, Tillman and Hamilton. The trio combined for 67 of UNLV’s 81 total points. Hardy has been scoring for the Rebels all season, he leads the team in scoring with 17.7 points per game. The second leading scorer on the team, Mitro-Long, is out. So the production from Tillman and Hamilton was great for UNLV to see. Those two must continue to perform at a consistent level to give UNLV some scoring while Mitrou-Long and Antonio are out.
The Cougars are a better team than the Rebels right now. UNLV, as mentioned earlier, is banged up and not at 100%. Even though the game is a neutral site game (in Salt Lake City , not in Provo), the Cougars will have a significant home court advantage. The Rebels had have trouble scoring, they go long periods without a bucket. BYU will exploit UNLV’s weaknesses and take advantage of any scoring droughts. My Prediction: BYU 85, UNLV 74.