With a win over Air Force on February 14, UNLV had played its way into third place in the Mountain West and an overall record of 19-7.
The Rebels haven’t won since.
“We need a win,” Marvin Menzies said after Saturday’s loss to Utah State. “We needed to remind ourselves what it feels like.”
A five-game losing streak to close the regular season has marred what was once a successful turnaround from UNLV’s 11-win season last year. Not only have the Rebels lost five straight, they have been mostly uncompetitive, losing by an average of 18.2 points per game.
Here are the biggest culprits to UNLV’s sudden inability to win.
The Rebels have struggled on the defensive end all season. Menzies has benched Brandon McCoy, a potential first round pick, for Mbacke Diong’s defensive ability. Menzies even threw out a defense he only describes as a man-zone that allows McCoy to hang near the basket while the other four players switch every screen and matchup to the open man.
But UNLV’s defense actually got worse as Mountain West play went on.
In the middle of conference play, UNLV had a decent run of holding opponents around 105 points per 100 possessions (save for the Boise State explosion). That mark is fairly average nationally, but was all UNLV needed to rip off wins in 5 of 6 games.
But the recent five game losing streak has seen the two worst defensive performances of the season and four of the six worst for the entire season.
Simply, UNLV cannot get defensive stops. Without that ability, the Rebels have been run out of the gym.
On Saturday’s game at Utah State, UNLV was defending well, as the Aggies had just 25 points on its first 26 possessions (96.2 points per 100 possessions). But Utah State scored on each of its final seven possessions of the first half for a total of 17 points to take a dominant lead over UNLV.
Those are the runs UNLV can’t stop. They have no true shut down defender. And Menzies commitment to playing two true post players leaves them exposed to opponents’ spreading the floor with shooters.
Three Point Shooting
The Mountain West loves threes; UNLV hates them. Over the five-game losing streak UNLV has made just 17 threes. Their opponents have made 49.
That gap is insurmountable and combined with UNLV’s defensive lapses, leads to blowouts and massive runs.
On Utah State’s seven possession outburst to end the first half, the Aggies made three triples in less than 2:30. UNLV had attempted just four threes in the entire first half.
College basketball has seen an explosion of shooting. Teams are shooting more threes than ever and making them at the highest rate since the three-point line was moved back a decade ago. Meanwhile UNLV continues to ignore the way basketball has changed.
It is a larger concern for the Marvin Menzies era. His teams at New Mexico State never shot a large volume of threes. In 11 seasons of coaching at New Mexico State and UNLV only one Marvin Menzies has finished inside the top 200 of three-point attempt rate (percentage of field goal attempts that are threes).
This year 27.5 percent of UNLV’s shots have been threes, ranking 337th of 351 teams. The Mountain West has the sixth highest rate of threes at 39 percent of shots and knock them down at the seventh highest rate, 36.2 percent.
It is important to note UNLV isn’t making many of the few threes they shoot. In conference play, the Rebels shot the worst in Mountain West at 29.1 percent from deep. Even if Menzies wanted to, he doesn’t have the shooters to put on the floor that other teams do.
But UNLV is trying to play old school basketball by beating teams up with post play, but the Rebels can’t keep up.
Without the shooting, UNLV has focused on feeding the post. Brandon McCoy and Shakur Juiston have the two highest usage rates on the team. Both have been efficient scorers over the course of the season with McCoy making 56 percent of his two pointers and Juiston at 63 percent.
But during the five-game losing streak, those numbers have fallen off. McCoy is shooting 46.4 percent, while Juiston is at 55 percent.
While the simple of math of threes out scoring twos makes UNLV’s path to victory more difficult, it is possible to overcome the threes when the frontcourt rarely misses. Prior to the five game losing streak, McCoy and Juiston were shooting a combined 61 percent from the floor. But when that number falls to 50 percent, UNLV has no chance.
These are the two carrying UNLV all season. If the Mountain West Tournament is going to see UNLV make any sort of the run, their incredible efficiency has to return.
The player with the biggest drop off has been Jovan Mooring. The gunner has fallen off the map.
During UNLV’s 5-game losing streak Jovan Mooring is shooting 13 of 57 (22.8%) from the field and 4 of 29 (13.8%) from three.
His numbers have been staggeringly bad. He might be the most important player in UNLV’s offense. He is the only player that shows no fear shooting threes. The runs other teams go on with multiple threes, Mooring is the only Rebel capable of making those plays.
UNLV is significantly better when Mooring is scoring, especially from three. The Rebels are 13-2 when he hits two or more threes, but UNLV is just 6-10 when he is held to 0 or 1 made threes.
The last time Mooring made more than one three was UNLV’s last win on Valentine’s Day.
As UNLV’s defense has witnessed, the three-pointer can erase a lot of mistakes. That is what Mooring brings to UNLV when he is hitting from deep. The lack of defense and the poor finishing in the paint can all be forgotten if Mooring is hitting threes.
The Rebels have already shown they can turn around a season. UNLV jumped out to an 11-2 start against one of the nation’s weakest non-conference schedules. The Rebels stumbled to a 3-4 start in Mountain West play, but righted the ship with wins in 5 of the next 6.
However this current losing streak is the worst of the season (and second worst in UNLV’s Mountain West history).
The daunting task of winning four games in four days to salvage the season at the Mountain West Tournament may be too much for the Rebels.
“We have to look forward to this next part of the season, which is the post season,” Menzies said. “It is a brand-new opportunity. Hopefully a brand-new beginning.”
Without an improvement, this new opportunity will be the beginning of the offseason.