When the Mountain West Conference schedule was released, many had Saturday night's game pegged as likely being the game to decide the regular season champion.
Both teams were entering the season with arguably the two most talented rosters in the conference, and UNLV was fielding a team which featured blue chip freshman recruits, experienced sophomores and a play making seniors in Ike Nwamu and Jerome Seagears. This was the year Dave Rice was supposed (expected) to get UNLV over the hump and release San Diego States stranglehold on the conference's top spot. After the non-conference schedule it appeared as if UNLV would have a chance to accomplish that goal.
The Runnin' Rebels finished their non-conference schedule with a 9-4 record and banked resume building wins against Indiana and Oregon (currently sitting in first place in the Pac-12). The Aztecs on the other hand would turn in one of their worst non-conference records (7-6) in recent memory, suffering devastating home losses to Grand Canyon and Arkansas-Little Rock and a potential resume crushing neutral court loss to a terrible University of San Diego Toreros team. These were two teams that were trending in completely opposite directions heading into conference play.
What a difference two months makes.
The Aztecs were able to regain their composure and run away with the conference's regular season championship. Looking every bit the class of the Mountain West that they were supposed to be when the season started. Trey Kell blossomed into a go to scorer and freshman Jeremy Hemsley continues to show that he will be one of the top point guards in the conference over the next few years. UNLV on the other hand:
The latest at UNLV: ACT test by freshman Derrick Jones has been invalidated and he's ineligible. Lotta smoke coming out of that dumpster...— Mark Zeigler (@sdutzeigler) March 2, 2016
The Runnin' Rebels have suffered a litany of setbacks since the beginning of 2016, with the most recent being the loss of freshman forward Derrick Jones. On Monday the University was informed that Jones' ACT score would be invalidated by the NCAA Clearinghouse and that he would be ineligible to play for the rest of the season (full story from the Review Journal here) . This news is devastating for a shorthanded team that desperately needs a win on Saturday night.
A UNLV win coupled with a New Mexico loss locks the Rebels into the five seed which means they will avoid playing on the first day of the conference tournament. Three wins in three days is still a tough ask for this team, but it's much better than needing four wins in four days. The Aztecs will also be hungry for a win, but for different reasons.
SDSU's chances of receiving an at large bid to the NCAA Tournament are very slim at this point. But there's still a chance. Their blow out win at The Pit (WisePies Arena) helped get them back on track after their shocking loss to Boise State last Saturday. If they can win Saturday and advance to the conference championship game, they will at least be in the discussion for an at large bid. A loss on Saturday day to the Runnin' Rebels would cement the Mountain West as a one bid league and require winning the conference tournament and receiving the leagues automatic bid to get to the big dance.
For UNLV to win
Get out in transition: UNLV struggles in their half-court offense. They are at their best when they are attacking the basket in transition getting easy lay ups.
Stay out of foul trouble: UNLV is going to be playing with a very limited bench and can't afford to have any of their key players, specifically Patrick McCaw and Stephen Zimmerman, sit for extended periods of time due to fouls.
Team rebounding: Even with Stephen Zimmerman back on the court, UNLV will need to continue to utilize the all hands on deck approach to try and limit the rebounding advantage SDSU will have.
For SDSU to win
Dictate pace: SDSU is the exact opposite of UNLV and will look to slow the tempo and prevent fast break points forcing UNLV to operate out of their half-court offense. If they are successful in doing this that will be a huge advantage for the Aztecs.
Attack the basket: As is the case most years, this is a bad shooting team and they struggle when they fall in love with shooting from distance. If they can avoid this pitfall and utilize their size and athleticism to control the paint and score easy baskets around the rim it'll likely make for a long night for the Runnin' Rebels.
Utilize depth: This is a big advantage for the Aztecs. They will be able to continually cycle fresh players into the game and play an aggressive pressure defense for 40 minutes that will wear down the Rebels allowing them to pull away late.
UNLV 60, SDSU 68
It is senior night for the Aztecs and this will be the last home games for seniors Winston Shepard, Skylar Spencer, and Angelo Chol. Tipoff is at 7pm (pst) on Saturday night at Viejas Arena. The game will be televised live nationally on CBS Sports Network.