UNLV enters Mountain West play as the odds-on favorite to win its first ever outright regular season league title.
But getting off on the right foot won’t be so easy, as the 12th-ranked Rebels (16-2) tip-off at 1 p.m. Saturday on the road against No. 22 San Diego State (14-2).
Here’s a closer look at five themes to watch heading into one of the biggest games the Mountain West will see this season.
1) Man Under the Microscope: Chace Stanback
UNLV’s leading scorer enters Saturday’s game on one of the hottest offensive runs of his career. Aside from averaging 14.8 points per game, he’s shooting 50.3 percent from the floor and an eye-popping 46.8 percent from 3-point range.
Now he needs to figure out how to keep it going in an arena that’s been a house of horrors for him over the last two seasons.
In two career games at Viejas Arena — both UNLV losses — Stanback is just 4-of-24 from the floor and 0-for-7 from deep, scoring 12 points and hardly impacting either game on the offensive end.
Granted, SDSU doesn’t have nearly as much length to throw at UNLV’s top 3-point gunner as it did in recent years, but the atmosphere will be as hostile as always — Especially against Stanback.
Last season, SDSU’s rowdy student section — The Show — had plenty of verbal and visual ammunition for Tre’Von Willis following his offseason arrest. Now, Stanback will likely get similar treatment centered around his May DUI arrest.
“Any away game, I’m expecting that,” Stanback said. “I haven’t got it as much as I thought I would this year, but I’m sure I’ll get it a lot more in conference.”
If Stanback can avoid the distractions from the crowd, he appears primed for a breakthrough in San Diego.
He’s reaping the benefits of a summer that was, for the first time in his UNLV career, spent in Las Vegas. Following his arrest, Stanback pushed himself harder in the gym than he had at any time in his career, and the results have been on display so far this season.
“When you put the work in, you’re going to get great things out of it,” he said. “My 3-point shot and conditioning (have seen the most improvement). I’ve always put the work in in the summer, but I felt like I put my best work in this summer.
2) The Hutson Connection
In the preparation for Saturday’s game, UNLV has a clear advantage in the form of associate head coach Justin Hutson, who spent the last five seasons on the Aztecs’ bench as an assistant.
Known for his prowess on the recruiting trail and in coaching defense, Hutson was Dave Rice’s first hire after landing the UNLV job in April, and the hire also should pay off on Saturday, given Hutson’s knowledge of San Diego State’s personnel and tendencies.
“There’s no doubt it’s an advantage when you have a guy on your staff who understands and knows San Diego State personnel, who knows the things that they run,” Rice said. “But as much an advantage as that is, at the end of the day, it’s still going to be the team that stays together and plays the hardest and makes the big plays down the stretch that’s going to win the game.”
This SDSU team isn’t quite the one he helped lead to a school-record 34 wins a year ago, as the Aztecs lost almost their entire front-court, which gave them such a huge advantage against UNLV over the past few seasons.
“Really good 3-point shooting team,” Hutson said. “They have multiple guys who can shoot the three and handle the ball. Their guards are really good. Big, strong guards who do versatile things.”
New to the lead role for SDSU is junior guard Chase Tapley, who was a role player of sorts on last year’s squad. He leads the team in scoring at 17.3 ppg, is shooting 50 percent from 3-point range and averaging 4.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game.
His emergence is no shock to Hutson, who recruited him.
“I knew because he’d already played a lead role before, had played well in big games and is a versatile player,” Hutson said. “Obviously, he’s a hard worker, so he’s getting better and better. But he’s just more of the focal point this year.”
3) No More Cupcakes
On Dec. 4, SDSU edged Cal — arguably the best team in the Pac-12 — 64-63 at Viejas Arena.
The Rebels enter as much more of a battle-tested club. Does the Aztecs’ long layoff from stiff competition hurt them on Saturday?
4) Breaking the Trend
In the last three seasons, UNLV has played SDSU nine times. The Rebels have lost eight of those meetings.
A common theme in those losses? UNLV has had a hard time holding its own on the glass, allowing far too many offensive rebounds and, in turn, second-chance points.
Gone are San Diego State’s three front-court studs from a year ago, with two of them — Kawhi Leonard and Malcolm Thomas — currently on NBA rosters.
SDSU isn’t completely zapped up front, but for once, the two sides look to be at least even. The key figure there for UNLV will be Mike Moser, who is averaging 7.7 defensive rebounds per game. Given the trend that neither team has particularly shot the ball well in this rivalry, his presence under the glass will be huge.
UNLV also gets a small boost with the return of 6-foot-11 senior Brice Massamba, who missed the Bakersfield game with concussion-like symptoms. He’ll be back on the floor for the Rebels, though might not be back in the starting lineup yet.
5) A Closer Look at SDSU
Including Tapley, SDSU’s top four scorers are all guards.
Sophomore wing Jamaal Franklin is averaging 15.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. He’s one of the most explosive athletes in all of college basketball, and his shot has come a long way since last season, but Franklin’s shot selection still has a tendency to be questionable at times.
A big difference-maker this season for SDSU has been sophomore Washington State transfer Xavier Thames, who has helped things stay smooth after point guard D.J. Gay was lost to graduation following last year. Thames is scoring 11.4 points per game, but also averaging 5.5 assists an outing while limiting his turnovers.
Inside, the guy to watch is senior LSU transfer Garrett Green, who is averaging 7.3 points and 6.4 rebounds a game. He and junior forward Deshawn Stephens will try and help SDSU maintain its dominance over UNLV on the glass.