UNLV concludes its non-conference schedule on Sunday, when the Rebels walk into Allen Fieldhouse to take on No. 13 Kansas (1:30 p.m., CBS). It’s been one of the most highly anticipated regular-season games ever since it was announced, and a win would bolster the Rebels’ postseason resume considerably.
Can they pull it off? Here are five keys to UNLV coming away with its biggest road win in years:
1. Win rebounding
Kansas is not a bad matchup for UNLV. The Rebels appear to square off quite well in the tale of the tape, and they should be able to compete on Sunday as long as they don’t give Kansas too many extra possessions. Since neither Kansas nor UNLV generate many turnovers defensively, that means the Rebels will have to clean up the defensive boards in order to keep the number of possessions even. Kansas is not a great offensive rebounding team—the Jayhawks rank 66th in the nation with 13.7 per game—but they can create problems if the UNLV big men get into foul trouble and force Dave Rice to go small for too long. As it stands, the Rebels are 16th in the country in defensive rebounding and should be able to win this matchup.
2. Defend the rim
UNLV is one of the very best teams in the country at defending the rim, as opponents shoot just 43.6 percent around the basket against the Rebels. And Kansas has serious trouble scoring at the rim, as only 39.1 percent of the Jayhawks attempts come around the basket. So the length of Chris Wood and Goodluck Okonoboh should severely limit any damage done in the paint. And it will help if Bill Self continues to keep Cliff Alexander on a short leash. Alexander has been the Jayhawks’ best player this season, but Self has limited the freshman to just 18.1 minutes per game, the fifth-most among rotation players. A burly, athletic 6-foot-8 power forward, Alexander is Kansas’ best threat around the basket, as he’s shooting 60.5 percent at the rim and 54.7 percent overall. As a team, the Jayhawks are converting just 52.3 percent at the rim. Outside of Alexander, the Rebels shouldn’t be scared by any of Kansas’ other interior players.
3. Hit 3-pointers
The Rebels are going to need a few well-timed 3-pointers, even more so than in a normal game. The biggest fear of going into Allen Fieldhouse is that Kansas will get some momentum early and the crowd will work itself into a frenzy, eventually overwhelming the young Rebels. But nothing quiets a crowd quite like splashing a 3-pointer. The Rebels haven’t shot the ball tremendously well this season (35.6 3FG%, 124th in the nation), but Rashad Vaughn has shown signs of finding his stroke recently (9-of-18 over the past three games). Kansas shoots the 3-ball well as a team (38.9 percent, 33rd in the country), but they only attempt 15.8 per game (301st in the country). It’s not inconceivable that UNLV could outscore Kansas from the 3-point line on Sunday.
4. Chris Wood: Superstar
UNLV needs the superstar version of Chris Wood that we’ve seen over the last three games, and it needs him on both ends of the floor. Kansas junior forward Perry Ellis has to be contained (team-high 12.8 points per game), and Wood is UNLV’s best defensive matchup there, as he has the agility to follow Ellis out to the perimeter while also protecting the basket inside. And offensively, it would benefit his young teammates if Wood can score early and take some of the pressure off the rest of the squad. He doesn’t need to tally the first 19 points like he did at Wyoming, but if a focused Wood can win the matchup against Ellis—or dominate it—UNLV’s chances go way up.
This is probably the most important factor, and it may end up outweighing the other four combined. The Rebels haven’t played a road game like this yet—yes, Wyoming was a road game, but the crowd wasn’t anything like they’re going to experience at Kansas. This is the definition of “hostile environment,” so the Rebels have to guard against getting swept up in the emotional ebb and flow of the game. A 6-0 run by Kansas is going to set off the crowd, but UNLV can’t let it become a 12-0 run. Cody Doolin’s leadership will be important, as he’s the guy in charge of defensive communication. And Wood has to play with patience, even if his shot is not falling as much as he’d like. Dave Rice also has to be ready and willing to call momentum-stopping timeouts whenever it looks like Kansas may be ready to go on an extended run. It won’t be easy, but that’s the blueprint for UNLV coming away with an upset victory.
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