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Nevada Basketball opponent preview and prediction: Air Force Falcons

NCAA Basketball: Air Force at Colorado State Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Nevada Wolf Pack will hit the road for a quick one-game road trip against the Air Force Falcons on Saturday, Jan. 15 at 2:00 p.m. PST on CBS Sports Network.

Air Force has not played in 11 days, with its most recent game coming in a 67-59 loss to then-No. 20-ranked Colorado State. It has played just three games since Dec. 21 due to multiple COVID-19 postponements.

The Wolf Pack have underwent a similar predicament, though they have played one game since their COVID-19 absence. They have played just five games since the start of December with six games postponed or cancelled due to COVID over that time span.

Air Force has already won three more games (8) than it did all of 2020, when it finished 5-20 — its worst win record since it went 5-23 in 1995-96. It began the season 7-1, but has dropped in four of its last five games — including a 67-59 loss to then-No. 20-ranked Colorado State.

Nevada’s won five of its last seven games after dropping four of its first five. Though it suffered a 15-point loss — 85-70 — to Boise State, a top-three team in the conference.

Nevada has fared well against the Falcons in their 17 meetings, going 14-3 — including winners in 10 of their last 11. Can Nevada earn its second conference victory of the season? Let’s dive into the matchup below!

Matchup: Nevada (7-6, 1-1) vs. Air Force (8-5, 1-1)

When: Saturday, Jan. 15 at 2:00 p.m. PT

Where: Clune Arena in Colorado Springs, Colo.

TV/Online: CBS Sports Network || cbssports.com/cbs-sports-network/

Spread: Nevada -8

Money line: Nevada -400, Air Force +320

Last Meeting: Air Force won 68-66

Matchup History: Nevada leads 14-3

Breakdown:

While their defense ranks outside the top-150 (of 358 teams) in the country (per KenPom), the Falcons have been a dominant defensive team at home, surrendering 55 points per game on 37.6 percent shooting and 26.0 percent from 3-point range. That said, four of their five home games came against offenses that rank outside the top-240 nationally (the other being Utah State — the 52nd-best offense — holding them to 47 points).

On the year, Air Force ranks in the top-25 across Division-I in scoring defense and 3-point field goal percentage defense.

They’ve accomplished these feats despite boasting one of the youngest roster in the country, featuring 10 freshman.

All-Mountain West guard A.J. Walker has been one of just three upperclassman that seen more than 15.0 minutes per night. The senior is their only double-digit scorer at 16.4 points per game.

In the team’s 7-1 stretch to begin the season, he was posting 19.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals on 58.3/43.5/80.0 shooting splits. He’s regressed a little bit over the last four games, recording a 11.5-2.3-1.3 steal stat-line on 36.0 percent shooting (31.6 3P%).

On the season, the 6-foot-2 guard is still shooting 50.7 percent from the floor, 40.0 percent from 3-point range and 78.9 percent from the free-throw line — boasting a 62.5 true-shooting percentage and a 19.5 player efficiency rating (PER).

The Falcons have also seen considerable contributions from freshman guards Jake Heidbreder and Ethan Taylor, No. 2 and 3 on the team in scoring, respectively.

Heidbreder’s tallied four double figure scoring performances over his last five games, averaging 11.2 points on 42.3 percent from distance in 37.4 minutes per game over that span. He’s tallying 9.4 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 31.5 minutes per game on the season.

After going scoreless against Utah State, Taylor enters off a career-high 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting — including 3-of-6 from 3-point range — with six rebounds and four assists in its eight-point loss to Colorado State 11 days ago. He’s averaging 9.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists — the latter two being team-bests — in 37.2 minutes per game in 13 games (all starts).

The inexperienced Falcons will look to slow down the dynamic Wolf Pack duo of Grant Sherfield, who recently tallied his seventh 20-plus game of the season, and Desmond Cambridge, who looked to have snapped out of a shooting slump on Wednesday (despite shooting a season-low 10 shots).

Sherfield is the only player in Division-I that’s averaging 19.0 points and 6.5 assists, posting 19.4 and 6.6, respectively. With his dazzling counting statistics, Sherfield’s shooting 45.1 percent from the floor and 37.3 percent from beyond the arc.

The 6-foot-2 guard is 22 points of 1,000 career points with the Wolf Pack and would join Cambridge as the only other current Pack players to accomplish that feat. He’s capable of doing so on Saturday, that’s for sure.

Cambridge tops the team in 3-point makes (41), 3-point makes per game (3.2) and ranks in the top-5 in 3-point percentage (.357; minimum 25 attempts) — the former two ranking atop the Mountain West.

He’s averaging 17.3 points on a career-best 55.8 true-shooting percentage through 13 games. He’s also tallying a career-bests in rebounds (4.8) and steals (1.7), along with 2.1 steals per game.

Warren Washington, one of the best offensive rebounders in the Mountain West, and Will Baker, one of the team’s top shooters (when he elects to shoot), rounds out of the Wolf Pack’s 7-foot starting center duo.

Washington tops the team in rebounding — tallying 6.8 rebounds (2.6 offensive) — per contest; he’s posted the fourth-best offensive rebounding rate in the conference, per Ken Pom, despite Nevada being one of the nation’s worst offensive-rebounding teams (24.0 percent; 297th).

Baker has totaled 11.5 points and 5.0 boards per game, shooting 53.8 percent with a 45.2 3-point percentage. He’s third on the team in 3-pointers, though he’s only made three over the last six games.

On the season, Nevada’s been the nation’s 83rd-best offense — fourth-best in the Mountain West — per KenPom. Air Force has statistically been the worst offense in the Mountain West (No. 322 nationally).

Prediction:

Given how good Air Force’s 3-point defense has been this season, if Nevada isn’t able to generate any clean looks from distance, it’s going to need to utilize its size-advantage and hopefully generate looks in the paint or get to the free-throw line. Air Force also operates with at the nation’s fourth-slowest pace with the 10th-highest turnover rate offensively. Conversely, the Wolf Pack operate with the 16th-highest pace, but are a below-average squad at forcing turnovers — fashioning a majority of its transition looks off live rebounds. Air Force isn’t a good offensive team and will win games with their defense. So if the Pack conjur together points in transition, at the charity stripe or around the rim, they should be in-line to win this game. Nevada 70, Air Force 64 (Season record: 9-4)