As we get set for the second half of Mountain West play, this is it for the Rebels — this is the stretch run. A season that began with lofty expectations has become a scramble to qualify for the NCAA tournament. After losing back-to-back road games at Boise State and Fresno State, UNLV is 17-6 and 4-4 in conference play, with few quality wins to speak of. If the season ended today, sure, the Rebels would make the field of 64 (or 68, whatever). But if they stumble over these final eight games, they could end up on the outside looking in.
That’s why this New Mexico game is so important (6 p.m., NBC Sports Network). The Lobos are currently ranked No. 15 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll, and this is one of UNLV’s last chances to score another good win for its resume. And coming off those tough road losses, the Rebels also need a good performance for the sake of their own mental health.
So how can the Rebs come out on top in the rematch? Let’s examine some key numbers in this edition of Over/Under.
Over/Under: 13.5 free throws attempted by UNLV
The first time these two teams met, New Mexico enjoyed a heavy advantage at the free throw line, attempting 29 to the Rebels’ five. That made the difference in a 65-60 win for New Mexico, and don’t think Dave Rice doesn’t know it. At Friday’s practice, he preached physicality to his players, with an emphasis on either finishing through contact around the rim or drawing fouls. But the reason I’m taking the OVER is that I believe the MWC had to be a little bit embarrassed by the officiating gap in the first meeting, so I expect to see more even foul distribution on Saturday.
Over/Under: 8.5 3-pointers for UNLV
The Rebels have not shot the ball well recently, and it cost them in losses at Boise State and Fresno State, games in which UNLV combined to shoot 26.7 percent from the 3-point line (12-of-45). Anthony Bennett was 0-of-6 in those games, while Bryce Dejean-Jones was 2-of-8. For the season, UNLV is hitting just 33.3 percent from distance, so we’re unlikely to see much of an improvement at this point in the season. I think the Rebels will try to cut down on threes against New Mexico in favor of working the ball inside, so I’ll take the UNDER.
Over/Under: 15.5 bench points for UNLV
There’s an old basketball adage that says reserves play better at home, and the Rebels certainly hope that’s the case on Saturday. In their last two games, both road losses, the bench has contributed just six and nine points, respectively. Sixth man Justin Hawkins is currently mired in a shooting slump, hitting just 3-of-23 shots (13.0 percent) over the last five games, and he hasn’t connected on a 3-pointer in three weeks (0-of-9 in the past four games). Rice is shifting Quintrell Thomas back to the bench and starting Khem Birch against New Mexico, so maybe Thomas will be able to provide some garbage points under the basket. I’m still going with the UNDER.
Over/Under: 14.5 points for Alex Kirk
Kirk tortured the Rebels in first meeting, scoring 23 points on 7-of-13 shooting, and containing the big man will be a key for UNLV on Saturday. But although Kirk beat the UNLV defense with spot-up shooting in that contest (2-of-4 on 3-pointers), that’s not really his strong suit — the 7-footer is shooting just 30.0 percent from distance on the season. The Rebels need to be concerned with keeping him off the blocks, which is where 48.7 percent of his possessions come. Kirk shoots 50.9 percent on post-ups, which means Birch’s defense will be important. Thomas will also get his turn defending Kirk, who averages 11.2 points per game. The tandem of Birch and Thomas should be better prepared to defend Kirk this time around, so I’ll take the UNDER.
Over/Under: Plus-0.5 rebounding margin for UNLV
UNLV is a good rebounding team (41.3 per game, ninth in the nation), but New Mexico (35.3, 162nd) won the battle of the boards decisively in the first meeting, 39-31. Bennett and Birch, the Rebels’ two primary big men, combined for just 10 rebounds in 45 minutes. Lobos swingman Chad Adams (6-foot-6) pulled down that many by himself, and Kirk grabbed nine. Can the Rebels reverse that performance and win the rebounding column on Saturday? I think Rice will give Thomas more than the 10 minutes he played in the first meeting, so if either Birch or Bennett isn’t getting the job done, Thomas can go to work. I like the OVER.
Prediction: UNLV 68, New Mexico 66
Player of the Game: Anthony Marshall — 10 points, eight assists, six rebounds
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