BERKELEY -- One point. One rebound. One tip-in. That was all it took for UNLV to take out California at Haas Pavilion just over three months ago.
"We're pretty confident in the UNLV match-up, and we don't have any doubts," Bears swingman Allen Crabbe said on Monday, after learning that he and the Bears (20-11) would be in effect hosting the 5-seed Rebels as a 12-seed in the first round of the NCAA Tournament (call it the second round all you want, television overlords; I refuse to) at HP Pavilion in San Jose. "We basically won. Just off of that rebound at the end, that's it. We're pretty confident."
Cal, however, should have doubts. UNLV (25-9) played much of that game without junior star Mike Moser -- a second-team preaseason All-American and an Honorable Mention All-American as a sophomore.
Moser -- who averaged 7.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per game this season -- went down in the first five minutes of that Dec. 9 contest in Berkeley with a dislocated elbow.
The Rebels were also without Honorable Mention All-Mountain West forward Khem Birch, who became eligible to play after transferring from Pitt just two games later, on Dec. 17.
Birch went on to average 7.2 points, 2.5 blocks and 5.7 rebounds per game in his 25 contests.
On Dec. 9, the Bears lost to the Rebels by one point, at home, when UNLV was without two of its top four players. On Thursday, the Rebels will be fully loaded.
"We're deeper than we were at Cal and I just think that a lot of our young guys have grown up," said UNLV head coach Dave Rice.
Freshman Anthony Bennett -- who dropped a game-high 25 points on 9-of-17 shooting -- has matured, averaging 19 points and 7.7 rebounds over the past three games, despite fighting a shoulder injury.
"The night we flew to Laramie on a Friday, and he woke up Saturday morning before shoot-around and had a nerve issue with his shoulder," Rice said. "He only played four minutes in that game. Over time, it's gotten better, and he's fine. The short story is that he's fine, he's good to go, he had a good conference tournament and he'll be just fine for the game on Thursday."
Bennett -- a first-team All-MWC selection -- is averaging a team-high 16.1 points per game and 8.1 boards, but his contributions go much deeper.
"He's been terrific. You take a look at his numbers, and the numbers have been great, but they only tell part of the story," Rice said. "He is a guy who is a terrific teammate, high basketball IQ and he's had a fantastic freshman year. There still was a transition period for him, when we started conference play. He had such a great nonconference season, and I think once we started conference play, teams were a little more physical with him, and more than anything, the attention that he was drawing from other teams, being the first guy on other team's scouting report because of the success he had in the nonconference season was new for him."
Being physical is one thing Cal has not been over the past two games, falling to rival Stanford at home in the season finale and stumbling to an early Pac-12 Tournament exit against Utah -- a team the Bears had beaten twice during the regular season.
During a seven-game winning streak leading up to that misstep against the Cardinal, Cal held opponents to 34.3% shooting from the floor, with 74 assists on 141 field goals. During that stretch, the Bears forced 70 turnovers, including five games of 10 or more.
"I think everybody has to get the mindset that defense is what's going to help us win," said Crabbe. "We really bank on our defense, because it leads to easier things on the offensive end. I feel like we're great in transition, so if we can get steals, get rebounds and push it out, I really feel like we can have success with that. I feel like these practices that we have, really have emphasized defense, and getting everybody on the same page."
Over the past two games, Cal has allowed opponents to shoot 48.1 percent, and forced just nine combined turnovers.
While Rebels senior point guard Anthony Marshall has a sparkling 2.14 assist-to-turnover ratio, UNLV owns a 1.14 mark as a team, turning the ball over 10 and 15 times in two losses to Fresno State (a 134 RPI team), and double-digit turnovers against Montana and Wyoming (74 and 73 RPI, respectively).
"He's just done a remarkable job of making the transition from all-conference shooting guard to all-conference point guard," Rice said of Marshall. "He just does what is needed for us. He's a terrific defensive player, his assist numbers are very, very good, and he's been a big part of our success this year."
While the Bears are averaging 30.5% of defensive boards, the Rebels pull down 34% of rebounds on offense, while holding teams to just 25.3 percent of rebounds on the defensive glass – good for 27th in the nation. When it comes to getting second chances and extra opportunities of their own on the offensive side, the Bears are 138th in the nation, pulling down 31.2% of offensive boards. What can those extra rebounds for UNLV and those missed opportunities for Cal mean? Extra scoring chances.
Over the course of the season, Cal gave away an average of 2.1 extra scoring chances per game (offensive boards + opponent turnovers - opponent offensive rebounds - turnovers). UNLV, on the other hand, averages an extra 0.3 scoring chances per game on the season.
The Rebels are averaging 1.04 points per possession this season, which means they could pick up between two and three points if season-long trends hold true. Add to that the fact that they will now have both Moser and Birch on the floor (and an additional 14.4 points, not counting points created via steals and assists), while the Bears have gotten back Ricky Kreklow, who is far from being the contributor the coaching staff envisioned before he re-injured his foot early in the season.
Even when the Bears were winning down the stretch, they still allowed second-chance points and points off of turnovers. Over the course of the season, Cal allowed an average of 11.64 points per game off of turnovers in losses, but 12.35 points per game off of turnovers in wins. In losses, the Bears allowed 10.45 second-chance points, while allowing 11.25 second-chance points per game in wins. The Bears have been able to absorb some hits on the defensive glass because of their shooting (44.6% on field goals, as opposed to a 39.6% for opponents), particularly on high-percentage shots. While Cal has a 10-point second-chance deficit over the course of the season in losses, the Bears have just a 5-point deficit in wins. That means that rebounding and post play are the best way to counter the extra possessions that Cal will give up to a Rebels team that is athletically superior.
"I know that they're an athletic team. They're fast. We have to emphasize our defense," Crabbe said. "We have to help each other out on the defensive end, and we definitely have to rebound and block out. Anthony Bennett, I remember him having a huge game against us, and he had 15 [sic] rebounds. They're big, strong, athletic, but it's nothing that we can't handle."
Even at home, Cal gives up an average of 1.8 extra scoring chances, while on the road, the Rebels only give up an average of 0.5. While the Bears won't be playing at Haas Pavilion on Thursday, with HP Pavilion just 45 minutes from the Cal campus, even the Rebels consider this essentially a Bears home game.
"Certainly, we're concerned, because it's very close to Cal's campus, so it's a great opportunity for their fans to not have to travel very far to come and support their team," Rice said. "I would say that it's much closer to a road game than a neutral-site game, but we just have to concentrate on the fact that we're playing a terrific Cal team and we're playing them in San Jose, and it's close to where they go to school and we just have to deal with it. That's just what we have to do."
By the Numbers: Bears and Rebs
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