The sophomore center had to sit out a year after transferring from Pitt, and his addition to the roster should have an immediate impact. Birch is an athletic big man, and pairing him with Anthony Bennett gives the Rebels a hugely talented 4/5 combo.
But Birch isn’t the only storyline to watch when UNLV takes on UTEP (3-4). Let’s analyze what the Rebels have to do in order to move to 9-1.
Anthony Bennett is on a roll (26 points per game in the previous two contests), and it goes without saying that he’s the No. 1 option in this offense now. The one thing that appeared to be holding him back early in the season was conditioning, but he’s been a horse lately, playing long stretches and not losing any effectiveness. Look for Bennett to get post touches on more than 50 percent of UNLV’s possessions and finish with 15-20 shot attempts.
Share the ball
UNLV is currently ranked sixth in the nation in assists at 18.1 per game, and those passing skills will come in handy against UTEP. The Miners like to slow things down, pack the middle on defense and force long, drawn-out possessions. UNLV needs to stay patient, move the ball (preferably through Bennett in the lane) and work for good shots. Anthony Marshall may not finish this game with a high assist total, but it will be up to the senior point guard to keep everything running smoothly.
Bennett and Birch
Birch is slated to come off the bench, but coach Dave Rice should find a way to get him some extended minutes playing alongside Bennett. With just six games left before the start of conference play, it’s important to develop chemistry between the two talented big men as quickly as possible. They complement each other nicely on paper, but working it out on the court can take time. Keep an eye on how they play together when they’re on the floor at the same time.
This ties into the previous entry. UTEP is vulnerable inside, especially on the boards — the Miners average 25.6 rebounds per game, which ranks next-to-last in the entire country. Seriously, only Mount St. Mary’s (24.3) is lower. Bennett, Birch and Quintrell Thomas should feast on the interior and provide plenty of second chance opportunities for the Rebels. And a guy like Bryce Dejean-Jones, who likes to slice in for rebounds, could have a big game.
Grind it out
UTEP wants to play at a slow pace. The Miners have won their past two games by scoring 55 and 64 points, respectively, so they’re comfortable walking the ball up court, taking their time, and playing tight games. The Rebels have to be careful not to force the issue in the open court — if they’re content to run their halfcourt offense, pound the interior and clean up missed shots, they should have no trouble winning their third straight road game.
Prediction: UNLV 77, UTEP 65
Player of the Game: Anthony Bennett — 23 points, 14 rebounds, 1 block
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