San Diego State is noted for its physical brand of basketball. Year-in and year-out, the Aztecs play stifling defense, rebound the ball, and maybe most importantly, wear down opponents with a consistently bruising style.
Conventional wisdom says you combat that style of play by diving into the muck, by muscling up, by being bigger and badder. And the Rebels have tried that at times this season. But will that game plan represent UNLV’s best chance to win and keep its season alive when it meets San Diego State on Thursday in the Mountain West quarterfinals?
In the two regular-season meetings between the teams this year—both won by San Diego State—UNLV has actually fared better when utilizing smaller lineups. It’s an extremely small sample size, but when the Rebels had both Chris Wood and Goodluck Okonoboh on the floor at the same time, SDSU outscored them 84-69 in 53 minutes.
On the flip side, when UNLV downsized, played only one of Wood/Okonoboh and paired him with Dwayne Morgan, Jelan Kendrick or another smaller player at power forward, the Rebels outscored SDSU 36-29 in 26 minutes.
Check out the numbers:
|| Lineup |||| Minutes |||| Score |||| +/- per 40 ||
|With both Wood/Okonoboh||53:51||69-84||-11.14|
|With only one of Wood/Okonoboh||26:09||36-29||+10.71|
Keep in mind that these numbers can be skewed for a number of reasons. In addition to the small sample size, the Rebels had Rashad Vaughn at their disposal in the Jan. 17 game at SDSU. Dave Rice obviously won’t have that luxury on Thursday.
So what would be the Rebels’ best course of action on Thursday? It’s tough to say. With the way Wood dominated against Nevada-Reno, he’s obviously got to play 35-plus minutes against SDSU. He’s the straw that stirs the drink inside for the Rebels. So the question becomes whether to give Okonoboh the lion’s share of minutes next to him, or whether UNLV would be better served by playing small-ball and giving Kendrick and Morgan most of the playing time at power forward.
The Rebels’ shot-blocking takes a hit when Okonoboh is on the bench, but the defense becomes a bit more mobile, and San Diego State does not score inside very much anyway—only 28.9 percent of the Aztecs’ field goal attempts come at the rim. So Okonoboh’s rim protection may not be at quite a premium against SDSU.
Offensively, playing small also leaves the middle open for Wood to do his thing. He’s at his best when he can put the ball on the floor and work his way to the rim, and Okonoboh doesn’t provide the kind of spacing that Kendrick or Morgan do. When Kendrick or Morgan play at the 4, it also allows Rice to slide Jordan Cornish in at the 3, and with the way he’s shooting, that’s a good look for the Rebels.
So it will be interesting to see how Rice decides to match up on Thursday. With the season on the line, going big or small will have a big impact on whether the Rebels go home.
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