Less than 48 hours after going down to the wire in a win at UTEP, the Rebels have to turn around and host a potential dragon slayer on Wednesday.
Northern Iowa (6-4) is more than capable of taking down a ranked team, as they’ve played tough in tight losses to No. 2 Louisville (51-46) and No. 19 Memphis (52-47) already this year. And this Panthers team may seem familiar to some of the Rebels — Northern Iowa eliminated UNLV from the 2010 NCAA tournament on a late 3-point shot, and this squad still relies heavily on the three.
How can the Rebels avoid another upset at the hands of this Missouri Valley Conference power? Let’s take a look at some of the keys to the game.
This was the most common theme when talking to UNLV players and coaches at Tuesday’s walk-through. They all understand that Northern Iowa lives on the 3-point line (7.9 3-point FGs per game, 45th in the nation), and it will be important to challenge all outside shots. “All of them can shoot the three,” said Anthony Marshall. “Even their big men shoot the ball. Getting out on those shooters is going to be big for us.” UNI guards Marc Sonnen (41.7 percent on 3-pointers), Matt Bohannon (40.5 percent) and Deon Mitchell (40.0 percent) are all threats beyond the arc.
Break in Birch
Khem Birch played 14 minutes in his UNLV debut on Monday, and expect his role to increase from there. He only played four minutes in the second half, and not at all down the stretch, but he’ll start seeing more important minutes once the coaches get more comfortable with him on the floor. “His minutes will continue to go up,” said coach Dave Rice. “He’ll be a big part of what we do.”
Create clutch offense
After Bryce Dejean-Jones hit a 3-pointer with 3:01 to play against UTEP, the Rebels only scored two more points — Quintrell Thomas got a bucket off an offensive rebound with 2:07 to play. Rice said he was happy with the looks they got down the stretch, but the shots just didn’t fall. It will be interesting to see how they handle the final possessions in their next close game. Look for Anthony Bennett to see plenty of touches in those situations.
Northern Iowa plays at an extremely slow pace. The Panthers are ranked 315th nationally in adjusted tempo, according to KenPom.com, and obviously that doesn’t jibe with UNLV’s preferred up-and-down style. The UTEP game was good preparation, because once again the Rebels will have to grind out defensive possessions and not let it carry over to the other end of the court by getting too anxious on offense.
I don’t know why, but this just feels like a Justin Hawkins game. Maybe it’s because he’s been relatively quiet recently. But I thought he played very well against UTEP, and when UNI spreads the floor with shooters, Hawkins’ defense will be critical. And if he can counter with a couple threes of his own, all the better. I’d be surprised if Hawkins didn’t have an impact on this game.
Prediction: UNLV 70, Northern Iowa 62
Player of the Game: Justin Hawkins — 14 points, six rebounds, four assists, four steals