Starting Five: UNLV needs more balance this time around in order to get the best of San Diego State

14th-ranked Rebels out to avenge earlier loss to 13th-ranked Aztecs, which was their ninth in the two teams' last 10 meetings.

Nine out of ten.

Say that to a member of the UNLV men’s basketball team, and they’ll know exactly what you’re referring to.

The Rebels are 1-9 against San Diego State dating back to the 2008-09 season, and in that run, it’s been near miss after near miss for UNLV.

The most recent came on Jan. 14, when the Aztecs stunned the Rebels in a 69-67 victory in San Diego to open up Mountain West Conference play, sealed by an acrobatic buzzer-beater from Jamaal Franklin.

Now, the conference schedule resets at the league season’s mid-way point, and 14th ranked UNLV (21-4 overall, 5-2 MWC) finds itself a game behind 13th-ranked SDSU (20-3, 6-1) in the MWC standings.

If UNLV is going to reach one of its most prominent preseason goals — winning a Mountain West regular season title — then downing SDSU on Saturday when the two tip at 1 p.m. is a must.

Recent history shows that doing so is far from easy.

In this edition of the Starting Five, though, here is a closer look at what UNLV must do right to reverse its rough 3-year trend of coming up short against SDSU.

1) The easiest shot in basketball?

Over the first two months of the season, free throw shooting wasn’t an issue for UNLV.

It’s still not a weakness, but ever since going 11-of-21 from the line in the January loss to San Diego State, being consistent from the stripe has been a problem.

In the team’s first practice back from that game, first-year coach Dave Rice emphasized free throw shooting more than he had at any point in the season. It again got plenty of focus this week.

In a game as physical as this one is likely to be, hitting them will be crucial.

On the season, UNLV ranks 177th nationally in free throw shooting percentage at 68.6%. What’s weighed that number down has been the team’s 62.8% free throw shooting in seven conference games — a number that ranks last in the Mountain West.

2) More needed from Chace

Senior forward Chace Stanback is coming off of one of the worst offensive performances of his UNLV career in last Saturday’s stunning loss at Wyoming. In 20 minutes in Laramie, he scored only two points, was 0-for-2 from the floor and for the first time in two calendar years did not attempt a single 3-point shot.

If he does that again, UNLV could be fighting an uphill climb against SDSU yet again.

It’s no secret that he’s struggled against the Aztecs more than any other foe in the Mountain West over his three seasons at UNLV.

But does it have to do with the matchup or where the game is played?

Stanback’s best performance against the Aztecs came in last year’s narrow loss at the Thomas & Mack Center in the Mountain West Conference tournament semifinals, when he scored 22 points and hit clutch shot after clutch shot.

He’s been dominant against everyone at the Mack, though, averaging 16.5 points in 11 games on the Rebels’ home floor this season, shooting 56.5 percent from the floor and 58.2 percent from long range. Those are almost surreal numbers, and Stanback will once again have to feel right at home for UNLV.

3) Defending Franklin

If the Mountain West awarded a Most Improved Player award at the end of the season, SDSU sophomore wing Jamaal Franklin would already have the honors wrapped up.

Last season, Franklin was a bit player off of the bench on a 34-win team, averaging just 2.9 points per game. Now, he plays almost 30 minutes per outing, averages 16 points and 7.2 rebounds per contest and provides an incredibly difficult matchup problem.

Many only remember his game-winner from the first meeting with UNLV, but Franklin also had 24 points and 10 rebounds that afternoon at Viejas Arena. He’s kept it going, and is likely UNLV forward Mike Moser’s top competition for MWC Player of the Year honors at the season’s mid-way point.

Franklin is averaging 18 points and 9.3 rebounds in league play, but also is second to only teammate Xavier Thames in free throw percentage, hitting 90 percent of his attempts in seven conference games.

When it comes to guys who can get a shot and score from anywhere, Franklin is easily SDSU’s best option. UNLV will need to do a spectacular job on him one-on-one and try and make the Aztecs’ shooters beat them instead.

4) Spread the wealth

Plain and simple, UNLV cannot afford to have an offensive half like it did in the first 20 minutes in San Diego — a half that Rice still considers arguably his team’s worst of the season.

In that game, Stanback, Mike Moser and Oscar Bellfield were a combined 7-of-32 from the floor, scoring 20 points combined. On the season, those three average a combined 38 points per game.

It was Anthony Marshall whose 26 points helped keep UNLV afloat in that game, but the Rebels will struggle if it turns into a one-man show on the offensive end again.

That will lead to an uglier, lower-scoring contest, which would again play into the Aztecs’ hand.

All four of UNLV’s top offensive options don’t have to explode, but two or three of them likely have to have pretty big afternoons.

5) The x-factor

For UNLV, the x-factor will be in the stands, as the Rebels will be playing in front of a sell-out home crowd again for the second time this season at the Mack.

A crowd of more than 18,500 will be on hand, as tickets for Saturday’s game sold out much earlier than normal for a big game, drying up late Thursday afternoon.

At San Diego State in UNLV’s last few trips down I-15, the raucous environment at Viejas Arena has undoubtedly had an effect on the Rebels. Now, UNLV hopes that the favor is returned, as the Mack could be as loud as it has been in many years come Saturday afternoon.

Combined with the fact that UNLV has been a completely different team on its home floor this season, that highly efficient level of play combined with a wild home atmosphere could help the Rebels finally start to shift the balance of power in this fledgling rivalry back in their direction.