Thrown into the fire

With all due respect to a San Diego State team that is currently 15-0 and ranked No. 6 in the country, BYU opens conference play on Wednesday with what may very well be its toughest MWC game – if not the toughest game in the entire regular season. After all, the UNLV Rebels have traditionally been the Cougars' toughest matchup in league play.

Just like last season, there will be no easing into conference play this year, as BYU will open league play against UNLV. However, last year's conference opener against UNLV was at home, while this year it is on the road.

"When you play one of the top teams in the league on their home floor early in the conference season, it's a real opportunity for you to see where you stand, and then if you can get a win, you've got a leg up and guys are chasing you," said Dave Rose. "Home games are great, but road games are really good opportunities for your team, and we'll see how we do."

Regarding the start of conference play, Jimmer Fredette said that "the level changes. Everything elevates. The intensity and everything is going to be great, so we're looking forward to going down there and playing hard, and hopefully we can get a win."

Rose, now in his sixth season as BYU's head coach, has traditionally had to face UNLV early in league play. In his first four years, his teams had to face UNLV on average by the third game of league play, and, as mentioned, have had UNLV scheduled first both this year and last.

Rose has a winning record against every MWC team except for UNLV, despite having finished ahead of UNLV in the final conference standings each of his past five seasons. He has also had multiple road victories against every league opponent, but has never beaten UNLV on the road despite three extra attempts that came during past MWC Tournaments on UNLV's home floor.

This tough history against UNLV is something Rose had addressed with his team.

"Yeah, we've talked about it, but that's a different group of guys and this is our own team and it's our opportunity now," he said.

"We've done some things here with this group already that other teams haven't done before," Rose added, citing his team defeating Creighton on the road earlier this season. Presumably, he was referring to BYU being the only team to defeat the Bluejays in their current arena on a Wednesday. Creighton had been 23-0 in home games on Wednesdays at Qwest Center Omaha until the loss to BYU.

As for why UNLV has traditionally been so tough against BYU, Rose said that sometimes it's been an issue of the Rebels having good matchups. However, he said that ultimately UNLV is just a tough team in general.

"I think UNLV plays really well against a lot of people," Rose said. "I don't think they just pick out a couple schools and that's who they play well against. I think that we've come up a couple plays short in a couple games down there, they've come up a couple plays short in a couple games up here, there've been blowouts at both places, so we'll see how this game goes, but I'm excited for the opportunity."

UNLV has indeed been a tough team overall in recent years, and the Rebels don't lose often at home, but there have still been various conference and nonconference teams that have won in Vegas while couldn't. The Cougars haven't beaten UNLV in Vegas since Steve Cleveland's last year at BYU.

Rebel roster

The Rebels this season returned six of their top eight scorers from last year in terms of points per game. That includes MWC Player of the Year candidate Tre'von Willis, who scored 17.2 points per game last year to lead his team, but whose 11.3 points per game this year make him only third on this year's team.

The Rebels had actually counted on having all eight of their leading scorers returning this year. Forward Matt Shaw lost out on his senior year after failing a drug test, and guard Kendall Wallace – who also would have been a senior – tore his ACL in the offseason. Last year they were fourth and fifth on the team in scoring, respectively.

Both players were capable three-point shooters and hurt BYU at times with their outside game. Rose said losing Wallace is an issue for UNLV, but that the Rebels are capable of overcoming that because they have a lot of perimeter shooters (as their flurry of threes in some games against BYU will attest to).

"They've got plenty of players. We don't need to feel sorry for them [because] they don't have enough players; they've got plenty."

Shaw's absence, meanwhile, means UNLV no longer has a three-point threat at the five spot that can stretch defenses.

UNLV is currently 17th in the nation in field goal percentage at 48.9 percent, and 117th in three-point percentage at 33.9 percent. BYU is 77th (45.9 percent) and 148th (34.9 percent), respectively, in those two stats.

Tough defense

Regardless of their ability to score, the Rebels are known more for their pressure defense.

"It's a team that really stresses their defense," said Rose. "I think their defense has been really consistent over the course of this year. They need to score points off their defense, that's kind of how they play, so they're gonna trap you, they're gonna run at you."

Fredette said their defense is tough because they take the Cougars out of some of their offensive sets and also switch their one-through-four positions on screens, making it tough to get open.

"They're just very pressure-oriented, they try and not let us swing the ball side to side, they'll double-team you, they're gonna be up in your face and take charges and do all these different types of things," Fredette said.

Rose said that during Monday's practice they weren't so much preparing for UNLV's trapping defense physically as they were mentally. He said it was tough to replicate physically in practice, but that they wanted to get an idea of how the game is going to be played and work on spacing the floor and being quicker and more ready to make a play when they catch the ball.

Big game

This will only be the first of 16 conference games in the regular season, and the conference title won't be won or lost Wednesday night, but it is nevertheless a big game.

"We won the league three times without beating them there," Rose said, referring to playing UNLV in Vegas, "so it won't be the end of the world [if we lose], but right now you look at this as a great chance to get one and then put pressure on the whole league to go in there and get one, and it's going to be tough because they're really good and really good at home."

Injury issue

Forward Chris Collinsworth may be a game-time decision on Wednesday as he nurses an injured knee. He missed Monday's practice to have the knee looked at by a doctor, and when Rose spoke to the media on Monday, he hadn't yet found out what the result of the doctor's appointment was.

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