Second Scouting Report: UNLV

The weight of a new reality did indeed hold down the Air Force Falcons, precisely when this team was just about to fly to Bracketville. The Falcons' wings can't be loaded down with pressure. This team has to attack UNLV – and the next month – with a mentally liberated outlook.


Air Force learned how to win a few weeks ago against Boise State, Wyoming, and San Diego State. This team put itself in the NCAA tournament conversation. As the Falcons found out last week, however, there's a difference between winning when you're off the radar and winning when you're a target. This is the next step in Air Force's evolution.

Let's re-emphasize one point: It's a huge plus that the program is merely in this position at all. It's such a benefit for these players to experience the unique pressure that goes with chasing down a tournament ticket. Much as a young tennis player will help himself by losing to Andy Murray or Novak Djokovic in the third or fourth round of a major tournament, the Falcons are helping themselves simply by exposing themselves to big-stage anxiety and the immensity of knee-knocking moments. You will have difficulty breathing at a higher elevation if you aren't accustomed to mountain climbing. You must endure the pain and discomfort brought about by rougher conditions and thinner air before you can learn how to breathe more freely, to survive and stay on the mountain with complete confidence.

Air Force might not handle this season with perfect calm and exquisite poise, but the mere fact that the Falcons are being tested this way can only help them in future seasons. This is all another way of saying, "Better to experience NCAA bubble pressure and fail than to not be on the bubble at all." Win or lose, this season has clearly moved Air Force basketball forward.

Now, let's come back to the immediacy of the present moment. Air Force's loss at Nevada really puts the Falcons in a box. Wednesday's game against UNLV is now a virtual must-win. If the Falcons can't beat an opponent that is 1-4 on the road in the Mountain West this season, they will miss out on one of their best remaining chances to put a particularly valuable scalp on their resume.

The added point of emphasis brought about by the loss to Nevada is that it will force the Falcons to win at least two high-end Mountain West games (beating one of the top four teams in the league) instead of only one. Had Air Force steered clear of bad losses, the Falcons could have made a case for NCAA tournament inclusion if they had won one high-end MWC game while taking care of business against Boise State and all the teams below the Broncos in the league standings. Now, however, the loss to Nevada means that Air Force must cancel out that setback with one high-value win. Beating UNLV is not so much an act of improving the resume as it is a matter of wiping away the damage done by the loss to Nevada. If Air Force does beat UNLV, it merely regains the position it had before the loss to Nevada. Air Force will have to then build on the victory over Vegas by getting at least one more big win, most likely in future home games against Colorado State or New Mexico.

Can you see why this UNLV game is so huge? Beating the Rebels will make Air Force's path to March Madness a lot more manageable. A win over Vegas would enable Air Force to improve its position by merely splitting the two home games against CSU and UNM. If Air Force can't beat UNLV, it will have to either sweep the CSU-UNM home double at Clune Arena or – if it splits those two games – swipe a road win at San Diego State (which isn't likely). Losing to UNLV will force Dave Pilipovich's pupils to thread the needle in subsequent weeks; beating UNLV, on the other hand, will allow the Falcons some wiggle room. That's how the bubble chase works – you need to win certain games at certain moments so that you don't have to play perfect basketball for two or three consecutive weeks. You're not going to be an A-plus team every night, so you need to create opportunities and avoid problems if possible. Air Force created a problem with the Nevada loss; it must undo that problem with a win over UNLV. Then, the Falcons could pursue an opportunity against Colorado State.

UNLV AT-A-GLANCE

The Runnin' Rebels do figure to make the NCAA tournament, but before this past Saturday's mammoth win against New Mexico, the Rebels were closer to the bubble than you - or anyone – might have realized. This team beat Iowa State (a likely tournament team but hardly an elite team) in the non-conference part of the schedule. It beat California, a team on the bad side of the bubble. It didn't do much else.

UNLV lost at home to Oregon and on the road to one of the worst North Carolina teams over the past decade. This team's resume was surprisingly thin heading into Saturday; had Vegas not beaten New Mexico, it would have had only one high-quality win to point to in league competition, a victory at San Diego State on Jan. 16. The New Mexico victory pulled UNLV off the bubble, but that merely means that this team, so loaded with talent, is likely headed for an 8-9 or 7-10 game in the NCAAs. That's not what this team expected after earning a No. 6 seed in last season's Big Dance.

UNLV is a terrible road team. The Rebels just don't handle difficult situations with composure; their halfcourt offense bogs down away from home. Unable to get cheap baskets on defense, UNLV fails to create its own energy and momentum, something it doesn't need to do when powered by a raucous Thomas and Mack Center crowd in Sin City.

This is a weird game for the following reason: UNLV is not a heavyweight in the Mountain West; an upper-tier team, yes, but not an elite one. Air Force would surely boost its resume by beating the Runnin' Rebels, but UNLV's lack of heft means that a loss would not merely be the kind of result where you just shrug your shoulders and say, "Hey, UNLV's an elite team, so this was expected." No, it's not quite like that. Given the way UNLV fails to compete on the road, this is a game Air Force should be expected to win. If the Falcons fail here, they'll be losing ground compared to most of the other NCAA tournament hopefuls in the Mountain West: Three teams that are either headed to the Dance or pursuing it have managed to beat UNLV when the Rebels came to their buildings (Colorado State, New Mexico, and Boise State).

UNLV STAT PACK – STATISTICAL HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS

Three-point field goal shooting percentage: 33.7. Change: -1.3 percent (35 percent even on Jan. 12, the last time these teams met).

Possessions per 40 minutes: 72.1. Change: -2.4 possessions (74.5 on Jan. 12).

Points allowed per possession: 0.889. Change: +.026 points allowed (0.863 on Jan. 12).

Turnovers per game: 14.4. Change: -0.7 turnovers (15.1 on Jan. 12).

Assists per game: 17.5. Change: -0.6 assists (18.1 on Jan. 12).

Field goal percentage defense: 38.5 percent. Change: +0.5 percent (38 percent even on Jan. 12).

Starting Lineup

Forward – Anthony Bennett –
Freshman, 6-8, 240 2012-13: 18.3 points per game, 8.6 rebounds per game, 1.2 blocks per game

Bennett's scoring is down 1.1 points per game since Jan. 12. (He was at 19.4 a month ago.) His rebounds are down by three-tenths (8.9 per game on Jan. 12). He averages 0.2 fewer blocked shots (1.4 per game on Jan. 12). Yet, Bennett is still carrying this team for the most part. Ordinary freshmen aren't averaging over 18 points and 8 rebounds per game in the middle of February. Ordinary freshmen also don't hit 53.8 percent of their shots through three months of a college basketball season. This is a special player; UNLV would be utterly lost (translation: an NIT team) without him. Bennett is going to score; Air Force needs to make sure that as long as Bennett does score, he's not getting cheap baskets, especially on putbacks. Minimizing Bennett's impact as a rebounder should be the Falcons' foremost point of focus in this specific matchup.

Forward – Khem Birch – Sophomore, 6-9, 220; 2012-13: 7.8 ppg, 6 rpg, 2.2 blocked shots per game

Birch's scoring has declined by 1.8 points per game (9.6 on Jan. 12). His rebounds have decreased by 0/7 boards (6.7 per game on Jan. 12), and his blocked shots have increased by 0.3 blocks (1.9 on Jan. 12). The UNLV coaching staff can't be particularly happy with what they've gotten from Birch. He was expected to do a lot more with his length and athleticism, enough to make this team a frontrunner in the Mountain West. The Rebels have gotten all they possibly could have hoped for from the two Anthonys in their lineup – Bennett and Marshall – but Birch, a low-post player who is not held back by weight or fitness issues (unlike other underachieving big men in the sport – think of Josh Smith the past few years at UCLA…), is one of a few conspicuous underachievers who have held this team back. Air Force hopes that Birch will slog through another uninspired effort for at least one more night.

Guard – Katin Reinhardt – Freshman, 6-5, 210; 2012-13: 9.8 ppg, 2.7 assists per game

Reinhardt's scoring has increased by 0.2 points per game (9.8 on Jan. 12). His assists have decreased by two-tenths of an assist (2.9 on Jan. 12). For a first-year player, Reinhardt is hanging in quite well, all things considered. As you're going to see when you survey the starters and the bench for the Rebels, Reinhardt is not the problem. He's not one of the players that is failing to do his fair share for Vegas.

Guard – Anthony Marshall – Senior, 6-3, 200; 2012-13: 11 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 6 apg, 1.4 steals per game

Marshall isn't the most imposing scorer and athlete on this team, but he is the Rebels' most complete and mature player. His numbers are generally going up while most of his teammates' numbers are sliding. Marshall's scoring is up by 1.4 points per game (9.6 on Jan. 12), and his shooting percentage – 49.4 – is very impressive for a high-workload guard. His rebounding is up a fraction (one-tenth of a board) compared to Jan. 12 (3.8 boards per game at that time). Marshall is handing out more dimes per night. He's improved by 0.4 assists compared to a month ago (5.6 on Jan. 12). He's become a better defender, and he was all over the floor this past Saturday when UNLV smothered New Mexico's halfcourt offense from start to finish. Air Force will need to maneuver around Marshall when it has the ball.

Guard – Bryce Dejean-Jones – Sophomore, 6-5, 200; 2012-13: 9.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.5 apg

Dejean-Jones has proven to be a steady player for the Rebels this season. Only a sophomore, his scoring and rebounding numbers are up compared to a month ago: 0.3 points (from 9.2 on Jan. 12) and 0.5 rebounds (from 4.1). His assists-per-game average has declined by only 0.1 assists; it was 2.6 on Jan. 12. This is where the Rebels run into some limitations. They have a very young backcourt that is facing rugged defenses and hostile environments in one of the better seasons for Mountain West basketball. In other years, when the league wasn't as deep, UNLV's young guards might have been able to make more of a splash. This year, it's harder for the Rebels' young guns to shine. This, however, leads to the primary point about the Rebels' underachieving ways this season: their bench.

Bench

A genuine crisis has emerged on UNLV's bench. Top reserve Mike Moser got ejected from a recent game against Boise State and has simply not emerged as the difference maker so many people in the program (and throughout the Mountain West) thought he could become. Moser's arrival one season ago was met with great enthusiasm, both locally and nationally. He burst onto the scene as a bright new talent, one that could make UNLV a March darkhorse. However, his numbers have not improved over the course of the season, and in one of the biggest games of the Rebels' season this past Saturday against big, bad New Mexico, Moser played only two minutes. He's in coach Dave Rice's doghouse, and that's one reason why Air Force has such a good shot at knocking off UNLV. The team's other primary reserve, Justin Hawkins, has also failed to leave a large imprint on the stat sheet, averaging only 5.7 points per contest despite getting 23.7 minutes of floor time each gamenight.

The other part of the UNLV bench consists of three reserves who receive far fewer minutes than the Moser-Hawkins combo: Savon Goodman, Quintrell Thomas, and Carlos Lopez-Sosa. Only Thomas makes any kind of statistical impression, averaging 3.8 rebounds per game. Without a better and more productive bench, UNLV will probably be a one-and-done team in March, and certainly not a second-weekend team.

Keys to the Game

1) Make the Rebels work on offense; they won't persevere under duress.
From the first scouting report on UNLV, published a month ago: "UNLV is not a particularly accomplished shooting team. Denying the Runnin' Rebels easy baskets and telling them that they will have to work hard on each possession will give them a chance to get lazy. If UNLV is lazy at the offensive end, it can dissolve into a pool of impatience and enable a less talented opponent to dictate the pace of play. Frustrating UNLV and luring the Rebs into bad hoists from 23 feet will give Air Force its best and most realistic path to victory, one that starts at the defensive end of the floor. UNLV's guards are big, but they have not yet learned how to play effectively. Air Force must take advantage of this reality before the Rebels figure things out."

Vegas hasn't yet figured things out… not consistently, at any rate. The Rebels, like so many other teams in college basketball, lose all sense of form and structure in most of their road games. Air Force's best weapon is its work ethic. Energy, leavened with enough patience, will get the job done for the Falcons unless UNLV shoots the lights out.

2) Fight with freedom. Basketball players don't play for the cause of freedom; they need to play WITH freedom. More specifically, pressure needs to make the Falcons jump higher and run faster. Pressure squeezed Air Force the past week, diminishing instead of improving this team's level of performance. The Falcons can't learn how to deal with anxiety in a textbook or even from Pilipovich. They must simply walk over the hot coals of February and learn how to make pressure work for them, not against them.

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