Can the Rebels Solve Their Riddles?

Rice’s guys have the talent to win the Mountain West tournament. But first they have to figure out who, exactly, they are.

Photo by Josh Metz

Photo by Josh Metz

After 31 regular-season games, we know exactly where the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels stand heading into this week’s Mountain West Championships: At 19-12, with few marquee victories, they are not going to get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. So the price of a ticket to the Big Dance is three wins in three days and a conference title.

Any questions?

Actually, there are a lot of them:

What does anyone really know about this team? Who are the Rebels? Are they a defensive-minded team? A team that wants to freewheel in transition? A team that wants to pound the ball inside? A team that wants to let its guards penetrate and run the show?

Before the start of the season, we thought we knew. Head coach Dave Rice didn’t have quite the stockpile of talent he did the year before, when Anthony Bennett led the 2012-13 Rebels to the NCAA tournament, but he had players whom he thought would fit well into his open-court system. Rice even spent much of the preseason installing a trapping, full-court pressure defense to take advantage of all the rangy athletes on the roster.

Once the games started, however, it became clear that UNLV was not suited to play that style. The backcourt was too inexperienced (freshman Kendall Smith and junior Deville Smith spent much of the first half of the season trading the starting point guard job), and none of the guards could stop opponents from penetrating. The pressure defense was quickly scrapped, and the team has been trying to figure things out ever since.

So here the Rebels are, hoping to discover themselves and make a valiant three-day run.

Can they do it? The odds are stacked against a team that heads into the conference tournament as the No. 4 seed with a 10-8 league record. UNLV is talented enough to take down any opponent on any given day. But after a season of erratic performances, it’s difficult to envision this group rolling off three consecutive wins over quality teams.

As it has for most of the season, the team’s play on the defensive end will probably keep it in any single game and give it a chance to win. Led by junior forward Khem Birch (11.8 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.8 blocks per game), UNLV has held opponents to 40 percent shooting this season (37th in the nation), and the Rebels allow just 66 points per game. The analytics-based focus of the defense is on defending the 3-point line and keeping opponents off the free-throw line, and the Rebels excel in both areas. For the season, UNLV’s opponents are shooting just 30 percent from beyond the arc, the 18th-lowest mark in the nation. Those opponents also average just 15.8 free-throw attempts, the fifth-lowest mark in the country.

Those numbers may not be exciting, but they’re important, and the Rebels have used those principles to build a solid, winning defense. In that sense, we know what UNLV is trying to do on defense, and we’ve seen it refine that strategy as the season has gone on. On the other end of the floor, however, it’s been a struggle to develop any type of dependable, long-term approach.

Inconsistent play in the backcourt has been a problem all season, but the Rebels’ biggest weakness from the first day of practice has been outside shooting. UNLV has made just 33 percent of its 3-point shots, which ranks 250th nationally. The only reliable deep shooter is senior guard Kevin Olekaibe, who makes 36 percent of his 3s. Deville Smith has had stretches of effectiveness, but his extended slumps have left him at 32.2 percent from beyond the arc. And junior Bryce Dejean-Jones, who was being counted on to step forward as a dynamic No. 1 scorer and shooter this season, has instead regressed, making just 30 percent of his 3s after hitting at a 35 percent clip last year.

That erratic shooting has had a trickle-down effect on the rest of the offense. Opposing defenses don’t have to respect the Rebels’ perimeter shooting, which allows them to drop defenders into the lane, which helps negate UNLV’s greatest strength—big men Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith.

Birch is the team’s second-leading scorer while anchoring the defense (he was named the Mountain West’s Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season), and Smith averages 11 points and 11 rebounds (the sixth-best mark in the country). The two combine to shoot an efficient 52 percent, but it’s hard for them to maneuver around the basket when defenders are allowed to ignore the Rebels’ perimeter shooters and pack the lane.

That’s why the Rebels get a lot of open 3s. When they make them, as they did when they hit 12 of 18 in a 93-67 win over Air Force on March 1, things are great. But those performances are few and far between. In the very next game, UNLV regressed to the mean, making just 2 of 12 from long range in the second half in a 73-64 loss to San Diego State.

Those wild fluctuations have been the story of the season, and that’s why it’s difficult to foresee UNLV putting together three consecutive strong performances and winning the Mountain West tournament.

Still, there’s reason for hope. Birch is one guy who makes it possible for Rebels fans to dream about challenging for the MWC championship. He’s on a tear right now, averaging 11 points, 13 rebounds and 5.3 blocks over the last six games, but he’ll need help. With no other consistent threats, UNLV’s best bet would probably be Birch dominating all three tournament games, with a different sidekick stepping forward each night to complement his efforts.

Players such as Dejean-Jones, Olekaibe, Deville Smith, Roscoe Smith and freshman forward Chris Wood all have the potential to be difference-makers in a game, but asking three different players to step up on three consecutive nights is asking a lot.

So is a Mountain West tournament title probable? No. Is it possible? Yes. And in March, sometimes that’s all you need.

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