Jacksonville State differs from UNLV’s Game 1 opponent, Northern Arizona, in one important way — they know how to win.
Whereas Northern Arizona came into opening night on a 17-game losing streak, Jacksonville State is already 3-0 this season, including a win over Division-I Eastern Michigan last week. That alone should be enough to get the Rebels’ attention.
Dave Rice isn’t standing pat after watching his team dismantle NAU. He’s making the first significant lineup change of the season, inserting sophomore swingman Bryce Dejean-Jones into the starting five in place of senior Justin Hawkins. Rice says Hawkins will continue to see big minutes as a sixth man, but Dejean-Jones should bring even more offensive firepower to the core unit.
Here are five keys to watch for during tonight’s game.
1. Bryce Breakout
Dejean-Jones will get his first start of the season, and it’ll be interesting to see how he fits in with the first unit. He’s not shy about firing away, but can he maintain that mentality now that he’ll be playing the majority of his minutes with Anthony Bennett, Mike Moser and Katin Reinhardt (the three highest usage rates on the team)? He’s a gifted passer, however, and his shot creation should help in the halfcourt offense.
2. Bounce-back for Moser?
Moser didn’t sound concerned after scoring two points in the season opener, but he’s definitely still finding his way this season. After being leaned on so heavily last year, he’s now learning to play with increased talent around him. But make no mistake, Moser will eventually have a breakout game in the scoring column once he figures out where to get his shots in this offense.
3. Feeding the Beast
Bennett delivered on the hype and even exceeded it against Northern Arizona, posting 22 points in just 20 minutes on 9-13 shooting. Those are the stats of a No. 1 option, and I expect Bennett to see just as many touches against Jax State. “They’re a smaller team,” said Bennett, “so we want to work the ball inside as much as we can and let the offense flow through that.” Sounds good to me.
4. Bench production
With Dejean-Jones moving to the starting lineup, the bench doesn’t have a clear-cut go-to scorer. Hawkins is terrific at filling in the cracks, so expect him to chip in his share of points. But this could be a chance for freshman Savon Goodman to step up. He posted 11 points in 16 minutes against NAU, and though he’s not a natural scorer, he generates scoring opportunities with his hustle and energy.
5. Transition defense
Jacksonville State frequently plays four guards, and they’re 3-0 despite shooting just 16.7 percent from 3-point range this season. That’s because the Gamecocks excel at penetrating and scoring at the rim. UNLV has to be disciplined about getting back in transition so they can set their defense and not allow easy driving lanes. Having two mobile big men like Moser and Bennett should help in that area.
Follow Mike Grimala (@MikeGrimala) on Twitter for 24/7 Rebels updates.