Sunday's game at Cal is an important one for the Rebels. Not only is this their toughest competition to date (no offense, Oregon), but it could eventually carry NCAA tournament implications down the road.
UNLV is 6-1 and ranked No. 18/21 in the national polls, while Cal is also 6-1 and projected by most to finish near the top of the Pac-12. Both teams could end up jockeying for seeding and regional placement when the dance cards are handed out, and a quality non-conference road win would look good on the Rebels' resume.
Can UNLV make it happen? Here are five keys to watch as the Rebels try to take down Cal and score their most impressive victory of the season.
1. Hit the ground running
The Rebels did not put their best foot forward in Portland. They started slow and shot just 24.2 percent in the first half, and the rest of the game was spent digging out of that hole. That won't work against Cal — the Golden Bears have too much offensive firepower, and letting them build an early lead could be fatal. UNLV needs to be prepared to play 100 percent right from the tip, because Cal is certainly going to come out with energy. The Bears' most recent game was an 81-56 trouncing at the hands of Wisconsin, so expect a frenzied crowd and an equally frenzied effort from Cal early on. The Rebels need to match that intensity.
2. C+C Shooting Factory
Cal's offense is predicated around getting open looks for junior guards Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs. Crabbe is ranked sixth in the nation in scoring (22.4 points per game), and Cobbs isn't far behind (18.7). "They're looking to shoot anytime they touch it," said Anthony Marshall. "We have to be ready for that and we can't give them that space." Crabbe will run through an endless maze of screens in order to get open jumpers, while Cobbs is more of a slasher. Both are capable of lighting it up from 3-point range (Crabbe hits at 43.2 percent, Cobbs at 36.4 percent), so the UNLV guards will have their hands full. Marshall should see most of his minutes matched up on Cobbs, and I expect Justin Hawkins to see extended time on Crabbe.
3. Pound it
Cal's strength is clearly in the backcourt. While the Bears have serviceable bigs in 6-foot-10 Richard Solomon (7.6 points, 6.1 rebounds per game) and 6-foot-9 David Kravish (5.9 points, 8.0 rebounds), neither are considered defensive stalwarts. Anthony Bennett should be able to out-maneuver them and put plenty of points on the board, and Quintrell Thomas should have a productive rebounding game. The X-factor is Mike Moser. At full strength, I'd pencil him in for a double-double, but no one knows how he's going to look after sitting out the last game with a hip injury. Even if Moser's not at 100 percent, the Rebels figure to have a big advantage up front. Pound the ball inside and let the big men do their thing.
4. Target practice
As covered above, Cal is one of the nation's most dangerous 3-point shooting teams. The Rebels, on the other hand, have run hot and cold from beyond the arc this season. At Portland, they shot just 1-of-15 in the first half. UNLV will probably see some zone defense from the Bears, and it would be nice to see Bryce Dejean-Jones and Katin Reinhardt step into a few threes and knock them down. Reinhardt has attempted the second-most 3-pointers on the team, and Dejean-Jones is third, but they've combined to shoot just 29.8 percent from distance. They have to be locked in if the Rebels are to make opponents pay for zoning up.
With Cal listed at -1 on most boards, this is the first time UNLV has been an underdog this season. How will the Rebels respond to going into a hostile environment against a highly-motived, highly-talented team that they know is capable of knocking them out? It's going to take mental toughness to come out with a win on Sunday. The veterans need to play mistake-free, Anthony Bennett needs to continue being Anthony Bennett, and someone else needs to step up to provide an unexpected lift. This will probably be the Rebels' toughest challenge until they travel to North Carolina on Dec. 29.
Prediction: UNLV 79, Cal 78
Player of the Game: Anthony Bennett — 26 points, 11 rebounds, 2 blocks
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