#16 Tar Heels provide no safe haven for reeling Rebels
An upset is unlikely, but UNLV can still take steps to start righting the ship.
- What: 2020 Maui Jim Maui Invitational
- Who: UNLV (0-1) vs. No. 16 North Carolina (1-0)
- When: 4:00 p.m. (Pacific), Monday, November 30, 2020
- Where: Harrah’s Cherokee Center, Asheville, N.C. (info)
- TV: ESPN2
- Streaming: WatchESPN (subscription required) or get a 7-day free trial from FuboTV
- Radio: TuneIn
- Matchup History: UNC leads the all-time series, 4-1. This the first meeting of the teams since 2012.
Maui Invitational 2020 Preview: How to Watch, Bracket, Schedule, Predictions, and More
The engine never quite turned over for the Runnin’ Rebels in their opener against Montana State on Wednesday, resulting in an embarrassing 91-78 loss to the Bobcats at the Thomas & Mack. The false start would have been a disappointment in any season, but with the hopes for the UNLV steadily rising, the loss feels even more significant. Perception can be a tricky thing, though, and one should be cautious to use one game as evidence to write off the considerable talent on this Rebels roster.
That talent starts with the tandem of scorers extraordinaire Bryce Hamilton and David Jenkins. We wrote about this pair at length in our season preview for UNLV, but the long and the short is this: both of these guys can sore in bunches and will cause a lot teams a lot of headaches.
When they’re on, that is. If the shots aren’t falling, things fall apart quickly.
Unfortunately, that flip-side showed its face immediately against the Bobcats, with UNLV shooting 10-for-30 (33.3%) in the first half, while Montana State shot over 60% in the first period. That disparity led to an 18-point halftime lead, but the Rebels found some footing and shaved a few points off the deficit before the final buzzer rang.
It would be easy to just blame the poor shooting for this loss, but that would overlook the fact that the Rebels’ defense gave up 38 points in the paint while also allowing Montana State to knock down ten three-pointers at a clip of over 50%. Cheikh Mbacke Diong can only do so much on the interior, and he did hold Bobcats big man Jubrile Belo to 40% shooting on the day, with Belo also turning the ball over a team-high four times. The Rebels’ shooting woes, while glaring, seemed to get better in the second half. The team shot 60% in the final 20 minutes, with Hamilton (27 points) and freshman Nick Blake (16 points) each catching a bit of fire.
Essentially, the Rebels need to stick to Plan A: Relying on their guards on the perimeter for creating offense, and relying on Diong for strength and defense inside. It’s a recipe that earned UNLV some success last year, and despite the bad first half, it seems like that plan still has some life in it.
The bigger issue, then, appears to be with how well TJ Otzelberger’s small-ball lineups will be able to persist if they can’t defend on the perimeter or successfully deny entry for opposing guards. Montana State guard Xavier Bishop carved up the Rebel defense to the tune of 22 points, and he did it from all three spots on the court. He was able to score efficiently inside the arc (4-of-5), he knocked down three-pointers (2-of-3), and made the most of his multiple trips to the line (8-of-8). It should be noted that Bishop is a very talented scorer who averaged over 15 points per game for Kansas City in 2018-19 before transferring to the Big Sky.
UNLV will face plenty of talented scoring guards this season, though, so they need to learn to defend against them — soon. The Rebels don’t have a lot of time to make those improvements, either, as they run into the blue blood buzzsaw of Roy Williams’ North Carolina team on Monday.
The Tar Heels are currently ranked No. 16 in the AP poll, and they didn’t do anything to make voters question that placement in their opener against Charleston. UNC tamed the Cougars in a 79-60 win, paced by strong debut efforts from promising freshmen Day’Ron Sharpe and Caleb Love.
Love led North Carolina’s scoring efforts in the opener, finishing with 17 points. The star freshman was not very accurate in his shooting (43% on two-pointers, 25% on three-pointers), but he made his hay by getting to the line for eight free-throw attempts and converting all of them. Like with UNLV’s guards, the expectation has to be that Love will eventually find his shooting touch. If he happens to do that against the Rebels, he could have a performance similar to what Xavier Bishop had for Montana State on Wednesday.
Elsewhere in the sea of Carolina blue, the freshman big man Sharpe also looked impressive, notching a double-double (13 points, 10 rebounds) in his first game for the Tar Heels. Those totals include five offensive boards, which indicates that Sharpe could really test Diong’s ability and strength down low. It’s not just Sharpe spearheading Roy Williams’ bruising frontcourt, though; Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot are the resident elders in the post for Carolina. The pair combined for 18 points, 19 rebounds, and five blocks against Charleston. Five-star seven-footer Walker Kessler is also in tow, so it’s not as if there’s ever going to be much drop in production when Brooks and Bacot head to the bench. That means that the Rebels may be forced to ditch the four-guard lineups more often and lean a little more heavily on Moses Wood for minutes.
The Tar Heels’ size advantage is going to be very difficult for the Rebels to overcome, so the key to this game for the Rebels is going to be controlling the game on the perimeter and limiting second-chance opportunities to whatever extent they can. Perhaps the biggest factors in favor of a UNLV upset would be if Hamilton can keep scoring at a torrid pace and if Jenkins can find the hot hand that made him a star for two years under Otzelberger at South Dakota State. If they stay cold, this could get out of hand early.
Final Score Prediction: North Carolina 85, UNLV 71
There are a lot of things that would need to break right for UNLV to score a massive win over North Carolina in the first round of the Maui Invitational. The Tar Heels, however, are coached by one of the best to ever do it, and it’s unlikely that all of the wheels fall off the bus at the same time.
For that reason, UNLV might keep it close, but their hopes of hoisting the hardware will likely be dashed by halftime. The Rebels’ various offensive weapons should be enough to keep them from getting completely run out of the building, but the matchups — on paper, anyway — don’t seem to point to a UNLV upset.
Win or lose, this game will be a crucial moment for the team as it pursues continued development in team chemistry, team defense, and team confidence. Keeping it respectable could be enough of a momentum-shifter to help UNLV start scoring wins in the games to come.
Think the Rebels are going to pull off the upset? See an angle that we totally missed? Connect with us on Twitter at @MWCwire and @andrewdieckhoff, and let us know what you think!
Andrew Dieckhoff is a USBWA basketball writer for Mountain West Wire of the USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Heat Check CBB. He runs the Dieckhoff Power Index and The DPI Gradebook presented by Heat Check. Andy is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer and a graduate of Portland State University. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.