While team expectations were as low as possible at UNLV, Jalen Poyser faced the pressure of being the projected leading scorer for this Runnin’ Rebels team. And six games in, he has delivered.
Poyser leads the team at 18.2 points per game; his lowest scoring game was a 14-point output against Cal State Fullerton where he hit 3 of 6 threes and got to the free throw line six times. His best came on Saturday in UNLV’s win over Western Kentucky, as Poyser drilled 6 of 11 threes on his way to a career-high 22 points.
He’s shooting a ton of threes, averaging 6.8 three-point attempts per game. He is also hitting a ton of them, as 43.9 percent of his triples have found the bottom of the net.
His three-point shooting has saved possessions when the Rebels have gotten stuck against a zone and needed a shot-clock beating bail-out three. Poyser has been the go-to guy.
Poyser has kept this scoring tear going despite playing heavy minutes. Marvin Menzies knows he can rely on Poyser; it’s one of the few constants on this roster.
With UNLV playing two games in two days this weekend, Poyser played 35 minutes on Friday night then 38 more on Saturday. In those two games, Poyser shot 10 of 18 from three. He also dished out 15 assists, while committing two turnovers.
Not only is Poyser taking on a massive scoring load every night, he’s also playing out of position at point guard. It is a position of need for UNLV, but Poyser’s scoring outbursts have minimized the deficiencies at point guard.
UNLV went 2-1 on the week with wins over Northern Arizona and Western Kentucky and a defeat to TCU. But the Rebels frontcourt suffered a major loss. Through three games, Christian Jones was leading UNLV with seven rebounds per game. But he didn’t play in any of the last three games. According to Marvin Menzies, Jones will be out for several weeks with an unspecified foot injury.
Like Poyser, Jones had been playing big minutes–33 per game–for Menzies. Dwayne Morgan has returned from injury, but his foul trouble prevents him from being a reliable option for 30-plus minutes a game. Morgan, who has led the Mountain West in back-to-back seasons in fouls per 40 minutes, is averaging seven per 40 this year. And he’s not the only frontcourt player with foul issues. Freshman Troy Baxter is committing a ridiculous 10.1 fouls per 40 minutes.
Add in Cheickna Dembele’s day-to-day injury—he missed both games over the weekend—and UNLV is searching for players to soak up frontcourt minutes.
Djordjije Sljivancanin, another freshman, has seen limited action. But the trust isn’t there for Sljivancanin to see big minutes. That left Marvin Menzies using a lineup featuring five perimeter players, with Ben Coupet and Uche Ofoegbu playing the four and the five in the Rebels’ zone offense for a handful of possessions.
Despite the lack of size, UNLV did a solid job rebounding, as both TCU and Western Kentucky were held under their average offensive rebounding rate against the Rebels.
Play of the Week
TCU and Western Kentucky threw a lot of zone defense at the Rebels. While the offensive performance against the zone wasn’t inspiring until the second half of the Western Kentucky game, Marvin Menzies still implemented a quick hitter to get a look at the rim.
It is a post isolation for Dwayne Morgan. UNLV flashes Tyrell Green to the perimeter so that four Rebels are scattered around the three-point line, leaving Morgan with a one-on-one opportunity.
Morgan also flashes to the elbow then cuts across the face of the defender to get post position. Green makes the entry pass and Morgan does the rest, making the basket plus drawing the foul.
Less than 24 hours later, UNLV ran it again.
Morgan goes to his right this time, but again he finishes through the foul.
The key is spacing. UNLV draws the defense away from the basket with four players on the perimeter. Not only are the four players on the three-point line, they are also free throw line extended, meaning no defender can stay near the basket.
It is a quick, simple play that gets UNLV looks close to the basket against a defense designed to stop those short-range shots.
UNLV was held below 0.9 points per possession in an ugly 63-59 loss to TCU on Friday. The main problem with the offense was TCU’s aggressive zone.
“Our offense struggled a little bit against the 2-3 zone. I didn’t feel like we had any rhythm or tempo going against that zone,” Menzies said after Friday’s game. “To be quite honest with you, I hadn’t worked on it much. (TCU head coach) Jamie (Dixon) is typically a man-to-man squad. We had worked a lot on our defense and you have to pick and choose when you only have so many hours in the day. I guess I chose the wrong things to work on.”
The next day, Western Kentucky threw a 2-3 zone at UNLV. The first half looked even worse than the night before. By my count, UNLV scored 16 points on 25 possessions (0.73 points per possession) in the first half.
But the Rebels torched the zone in the second half to a ridiculous 1.73 points per possession (26 points on 15 possessions). UNLV hit 7 of 13 three pointers (not all against the zone) in that second half, as the Rebels turned the Western Kentucky 2-3 zone into a 10-point win.
UNLV will likely still be tested with more zone defenses until the Rebels can consistently shoot opponents out of it.
Regardless of UNLV’s offensive struggles and frontcourt problems, the Rebels have been locking opponents up on defense. Since that opening-day loss to South Alabama, UNLV has not allowed an opponent to score over one point per possession.
Ken Pom ranks UNLV as the 120th best defense in the nation, but the Rebels are two points per 100 possessions better than the average college basketball defense.
Lots of Rebel games will probably be ugly, just like that 63-59 loss to TCU. UNLV’s defense will be solid, while the offense will likely fade in and out of efficient performances.
The best sign has been UNLV’s ability to get stops in man-to-man defense and in a 2-3 zone. Menzies was forced to go to the 2-3 zone to help prevent Dwayne Morgan from picking up his third foul against Western Kentucky. It worked so well, Menzies decided to stay in it for long stretches throughout the game.
It is a defensive-minded team that might just have enough shooting to beat any Mountain West team on any night.
First road trip up next
Former UNLV assistant Ryan Miller made his return to the Thomas & Mack with TCU on Friday. Todd Simon, who was named interim head coach at UNLV after Dave Rice’s firing, is now the head man at Southern Utah. That’s where UNLV heads on Wednesday.
Simon took over a six-win Thunderbird team, and while this year’s team has no wins against division I opponents, Simon’s imprint is apparent. Southern Utah ranks 62nd in tempo, including a 105-possession game against Bethesda of the National Christian College Athletic Association.
Simon will likely get UNLV running, which has seen the last two games slowed down by the zone defense. Ken Pom projects UNLV to win 78-70.
The weekend game for UNLV is at Arizona State, which sits at 4-2 currently, but plays Kentucky on Monday night. The Sun Devils have yet to knock off a team in the Ken Pom top 200; UNLV ranks 167. Ken Pom though projects a nine-point Sun Devil victory.