UNLV fans undoubtedly remember the Rebels’ trip to San Diego State on Jan. 17. The Rebs were impressive in racing out to an early lead, but they were eventually worn down by SDSU’s aggressive full-court defense. Chris Wood and Jelan Kendrick had their worst games of the season, and the entire team flamed out in the final minutes as San Diego State came back for a 53-47 victory.
Since then, UNLV has only gotten thinner, with just seven scholarship players expected to suit up for the rematch on Wednesday night. Can the Rebels band together to win this time around? We’ve got five keys:
Get Wood going
Chris Wood was invisible in the first meeting (32 minutes, two points, three rebounds, three turnovers). That cannot happen, and to Wood’s credit, it hasn’t happened since. He’s been great since that game, scoring in double figures in all 11 contests and posting six double-doubles. That’s the Wood that UNLV needs on Wednesday. Working against him is the San Diego State defense, which is the best and most physical in the Mountain West. Before Tuesday’s practice, Dave Rice said the Rebels will look to get Wood involved early, but also put some of the responsibility on Wood, saying he has to be tougher and more active when scoring opportunities arise.
Pick up the pace
This ties into the first key. San Diego State’s defense is deep, well-coached and extremely physical—UNLV was quite visibly worn out by SDSU’s pressure at the end of the first meeting. So UNLV would be wise to push the ball and try to generate offense before the Aztecs can get set at that end. Wood will be vital in that regard—he’s not great at running the floor, but the Rebels will desperately need him to sprint the length of the court at full speed and establish early post position, especially when UNLV grabs defensive rebounds. If Wood can beat the defense to the spot and score a few quick inside buckets, it could be the difference in a low-scoring game.
Meet the press
The Aztecs aren’t as beastly on the boards as they have been in recent seasons, but they are still pretty good at generating extra possessions by forcing turnovers. They rank 64th in the nation in steals, but considering they play at a snail’s pace (61.7 possessions per game, 38th slowest in the country; only Wyoming and Air Force are slower in the Mountain West), that’s an impressive number. UNLV didn’t handle the full-court press very well in the first meeting—the Rebels committed turnovers on 16 of their 58 possessions. Cody Doolin turned it over twice in that game, but said the Rebels should be better prepared for SDSU’s blitzing defense now that they’ve seen it once before.
“I think it makes a huge difference,” Doolin said. “Especially [having gotten] a look at some of their run-and-jump stuff they do in the full court defensively.”
Kendrick: The Recipe
Like most of the Rebels, senior Jelan Kendrick struggled in the Jan. 17 game. At that point in the season, he had just been replaced in the starting lineup by Patrick McCaw, and his first outing off the bench did not go well, as he played 10 minutes against SDSU and posted zero points, zero assists and one rebound. He’s since settled into a very nice role for the Rebels, and with all the injuries has even slid back into the starting lineup. His ball-handling will be critical against the SDSU press, and he should even be able to find some creases in transition. Something like eight points, six rebounds and four assists from Kendrick on Wednesday would be perfect.
Pack the paint
One thing doesn’t seem to change with San Diego State, and that’s the Aztecs’ inability to shoot from the outside. They’re terrible from long distance once again this season, making just 31.4 percent of their 3-point attempts, and the only regular shooting better than 35 percent is reserve forward Malik Pope, who is hitting at 41.7 percent but has made just 15 total 3-pointers. The Rebels can shade their defense toward the middle without fear of getting burned from the outside, and if Wood and Goodluck Okonoboh stay out of foul trouble, they should be able to have a field day blocking and challenging shots inside.
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