Along with the 7-0 Tigers, archrival Alabama will be heading out west as well. The Crimson Tide will face Oregon in the opening game of the event at 9 p.m. For the Tigers this will be their second appearance in the Las Vegas Showdown as they defeated Oregon (101-97) in overtime in 2000.
This will be the fourth time that Auburn and UNLV have met on the hardwood with UNLV holding a 2-1 advantage. UNLV has beaten Auburn at the Thomas and Mack Center in 1991 (85-82) and Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum (104-85) in 1987. The Tigers' lone victory over the Runnin' Rebels came in the Sweet Sixteen at The Summit in Houston Texas in 1986, as the Tigers topped the Rebels (70-63) before going down in the Elite Eight to eventual nation champion Louisville (84-76).
Auburn Coach Cliff Ellis says that a tough road test will be important for his team heading into SEC play. "They are going to push the basketball," Ellis says. "And it is going to be a great game for us from the standpoint of playing this game in front of 11,000 plus. Our conference opener is going to be very similar to that. It is the first time that we will have played in that atmosphere on the road."
The Tigers will likely look to their veteran frontcourt duo of Marco Killingsworth and Brandon Robinson to lead the charge offensively. Killingsworth is leading Auburn in scoring with 14.4 points per game. The junior forward is also adding 6.1 rebounds and hitting 64.1 percent of his shots from the floor.
Robinson, a junior from Buckhorn High School, is second in scoring with 12.9 points per game while hitting 57.4 percent of his shots. He is also adding 6.7 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game.
"It is going to be fun going out there and playing against a team that you once dreamed about playing, Robinson says. "I dreamed about playing all of these big time type schools--UNLV, North Carolina, a lot of schools like that."
Ronnie LeMelle has been an important addition to the Tigers this season.
With the Tigers heading into a hostile environment for the first time this season the guard play will also be very important to Auburn's chances of winning. Junior college transfer Ian Young, who has played surprisingly well at the point guard spot filling in for Lewis Monroe, must again carry the load. Young has averaged 12 points per game and is huge threat from three-point land hitting 51.5 percent of his treys. He has also taken good care of the basketball averaging only two turnovers per game.
Ellis says that the Tigers newcomers are playing better than he expected at this point in the season. "With the three new guys that are in you just don't know how they will respond until you put them on the court," Ellis explains. "They have all responded well. I think it usually takes junior college players--I have always said this--a half a year to adjust. I think they are making adjustments a lot quicker than most junior college players that I have seen."
Another Tiger newcomer will likely get his third start of the season Saturday night after putting up impressive numbers in his second start against Montana. Junior forward Ronny LeMelle scored a career high 18 points against the Grizzlies in the Tigers last game. LeMelle, much like Young, can also nail the three-point shot as he is shooting 58.8 percent from behind the line.
Despite the Tigers' seven-game win streak Ellis explains that his team still has a lot of work to do to reach his expectations. "I don't think we are where we need to be yet, but our team has been a very good team," Ellis says. "They have worked well together, there has not been any selfishness, they have played hard on defense. So, it has been enjoyable for me to see the way they have risen and improved, but we still have so far to go."
Auburn is shooting the ball well from the floor, hitting 51.1 percent of its shots, including 40 percent of its three-point attempts. The Tigers wouldd like to improve their 66.9 percent free throw shooting. The Tigers are averaging 81 points per game.
Auburn has also been strong on the defensive end of the court, giving up only 56.7 points per game and getting 12.1 steals and six blocks per contest. Auburn is crashing the boards well, grabbing 38.6 rebounds per game and allowing their opponents only 26.9.
UNLV certainly lives up to their nickname on the court because they like to get up and down the floor quickly. And Ellis says that despite the apparent fast paced matchup his team will have to be more controlled than normal with its running style.
"You know we like to run," Ellis notes. "A lot of times when you play an all out running game with a team like that at home they feel--a running team is more comfortable playing that way too. Is it a matchup where both teams like to get up and down the floor? Yes. That style usually favors a home team, if that makes sense, because they want the crowd, they like to hear the crowd, they like to feel the crowd and if you are an opponent you like to keep the crowd out of it. So, I think in essence we need to be smart about the run."
The Runnin' Rebels are coached by Charlie Spoonhour, who gained fame as the coach at Saint Louis during the 1990s after a successful tenure at Southwest Missouri State. UNLV is 5-2 on the season with wins over Delaware State (65-59), Western Illinois (75-55), California (59-57), at USC (92-83) in overtime and at Loyola Marymount (78-61). The Rebels' two losses have come to Nevada (62-74) and at Stanford (71-86). UNLV was upset 74-73 by Northern Arizona on Thursday night to fall to 5-3. The Lumberjacks overcame a 45-29 halftime deficit for the victory.
Offensively, the Runnin' Rebels are averaging 71.7 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting from the field. UNLV is hitting 34.3 percent of its threes and 65.4 percent from the free throw line.
On the defensive side of the ball Spoonhour's team is giving up 67.9 points, getting out-rebounded 36.4-32.6 and grabbing only 6.8 steals per game.
The Runnin' Rebels are led in scoring and rebounding by 6-7 junior forward Odartey Blankston, who averages 18 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. The junior is also shooting a solid 56.8 percent from the floor. UNLV's other forward is 6-8 senior J.K. Edwards who returned from a six-game suspension to score 12 points on 5-8 shooting and grab three rebounds in a loss to Stanford.
In the backcourt the Runnin' Rebels will likely start with three guards. Six-foot-seven junior Romel Black leads the backcourt in scoring with 13.1 points per game and he is making 51.5 percent of his field goals. Five-foot-ten junior point guard Jerel Blassingame handles most of the time at the point with 32.9 minutes per game. The junior is averaging 9.9 points and 5.4 assists per game. The Runnin' Rebels other guard is 6-2 senior Demetrius Hunter, who is averaging 10.1 points per game and is hitting 39.5 percent of his shots from behind the arc.
Ellis says that everything he has seen from UNLV tells him this will be a test for his Tigers. "They have played good games against Cal and Southern Cal," Ellis says about the Runnin' Rebels tough wins. "I like this team--we have got a tough matchup--we are going to have to play a great basketball game. This is a very good three-point shooting team that has inside presence to go with that and they are athletic and quick and well coached."
Ellis says that despite the road trip to the desert the contest should be a great tool for his team to use in the future. "I think what we are going to see is that they are going to feel very comfortable in their arena. They are going to have the emotion of the crowd. We are going to have to play a great game under those circumstances, it is going to be a good experience."