Photo by Josh Metz | SPYONvegas.com The Rebels should be able to take advantage of Northern Arizona's small stature up front tonight, after coming off a closer-than-it-should've-been win over Dixie State.
The Rebels' Monday night foe, Northern Arizona, has lost 17 consecutive games dating back to last season. Don't bank on that streak coming to an end tonight, even though the Lumberjacks did put up a solid effort in losing their opener to Oregon, 83-73 over the weekend.
NAU is not an offensive powerhouse — the team scored just over 62 points per game last season and barely shot 40 percent from the field as a team. Senior guard Gabe Rogers is probably the top offensive threat (10.2 points per game last year, 30.9 percent on 3-pointers), though he had a rough night against Oregon with just eight points on 3-13 shooting. Freshman guard Dewayne Russell was the Lumberjacks' most productive player in that game, scoring 15 points in 19 minutes off the bench in his collegiate debut.
Northern Arizona is also a small team, with limited options up front. It's the kind of lineup the Rebels should be able to take advantage of — poor shooting, weak inside, not comfortable in the open floor — and the atmosphere on opening night at the Thomas & Mack Center should only add to the Rebels' advantage.
UNLV will go with a small-ball lineup of Anthony Marshall at the point, Katin Reinhardt and Justin Hawkins on the wings, and Mike Moser and Anthony Bennett in the frontcourt. Bryce Dejean-Jones and Savon Goodman figure to get significant minutes off the bench, though Goodman is fighting a sore leg after a collision in Saturday's practice.
Here are five keys to watch for during tonight's game.
1. Another fast start
In last week's exhibition game, the Rebels jumped all over Division-II Dixie State, taking a 17-point lead in the first half. The defense was at its most energized, with the Rebs swarming and creating turnovers in bunches. UNLV's pace should disorient Northern Arizona early, and I expect it will take a while for the Lumberjacks to adjust to the speed of the game. The Rebels should be able to build a sizable first-half lead.
2. Can the Rebels come together?
Two freshmen will start tonight, and a third will see heavy minutes off the bench. How long will it take the Rebels to get comfortable playing together, considering all the new faces? Coach Dave Rice said his team had trouble defending "as a unit" against Dixie State, but senior guard Anthony Marshall doesn't think the process will take long. "I think we can play our best ball early in the season," said Marshall. "In terms of chemistry and jelling, that's not an issue. We've played together a lot, practiced, so we should be able to play at our highest level starting [tonight]."
3. Big men playing big
Mike Moser and Anthony Bennett will start at power forward and center tonight, respectively, and the Rebels will need both players to produce in the paint. Moser and Bennett both have nice perimeter games, but Northern Arizona is at a serious disadvantage inside — they start a 6-foot-6 forward and a 6-foot-7 center, and none of their other starters top 6-foot-2. At yesterday's practice, Rice implored his team to throw the ball into the post more. "We always want to play inside-out, even in transition," said Rice. "Early-opportunity 3's are great if they're open, but we need to make an emphasis to always work the ball into the post." Moser and Bennett (both 6-foot-8) should be able to do work around the basket — look for both to post double-doubles tonight.
4. Hawkins D'ing up
Senior guard Justin Hawkins slides into the starting lineup tonight in place of freshman Savon Goodman (a starter against Dixie State), and while Goodman brings many things to the table — energy, aggressiveness, size, toughness, open-court ability — Hawkins brings defense. He's the Rebels' best perimeter defender, and one of the top handful in the nation. I expect him to shadow Rogers to start the game, and move around based on matchups as the contest unfolds. Hawkins may not score in double figures, but his impact should be huge.
5. Closing out
Intensity was an issue against Dixie State, as the Rebels opened the second half at less than full speed and watched the Red Storm erase a 17-point deficit. UNLV has enough depth to keep the pressure up for 40 minutes, and the players seem to realize that. "In the second half [against Dixie State], I felt that we didn't compete on every possession at the defensive end," said Marshall. "Northern Arizona has some great shooters, so we're going to have to defend the way we're capable of. We need to play Runnin' Rebel basketball — defending like crazy, switching, deflections, steals, rebounding, pushing the ball and running. That's when you see the lobs and dunks and that stuff. We need to keep it up for the whole game, not just one half or one run."
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