Mountain West Basketball: UNLV vs. Southern Illinois–Preview, Odds, Prediction
Runnin’ Rebels head to southern California for SoCal Challenge, take on Southern Illinois
Game 5: UNLV Runnin’ Rebels (4-0) vs. Southern Illinois Salukis (3-1)
When: Monday, November 21st – 10:00 PT
Where: The Pavilion at JSerra; San Juan Capistrano, CA
How to Watch: CBS Sports Network
Odds: UNLV -1.5 Over/Under 125
Late night hoops baby! It’s Feast Week, and we’re not just talking about the pounds of turkey and the endless leftovers of side dishes you’ll take home from family gatherings this extended weekend. Although it technically started last week, Feast Week is that wonderful stretch of days when hoops junkies have quality basketball to watch at all hours of the day. Early AM games, check. Mid-afternoon games, check. Standard evening games, of course check. And now, thanks to the SoCal Challenge, we have late night hoops as well. As in, 10:00 Pacific Time late, something rarely seen, and it shapes up as an intriguing matchup between UNLV and Southern Illinois.
The Runnin’ Rebels come in 4-0, and probably own the best win so far of any Mountain West Conference team, a 60-52 home win over a Dayton outfit that was nationally ranked. This will be their first game outside of Las Vegas and the Thomas & Mack Center, so that is always something to keep an eye on. The Salukis enter at 3-1 and also sport a quality win, a 61-60 upset victory in Stillwater, against Oklahoma State. They did follow that up by laying an egg, dropping a 71-53 decision to Division I newbie Southern Indiana.
The SoCal Challenge is in its second year of existence. Like most Multi-Team Events, there are 8 teams headed to sunny southern California, but unlike most of those other tourneys, these teams are only getting two games. The 8 teams are actually split up into two small four team brackets, one is titled the Surf, and one is the Sand. Can’t really go wrong with either, but for what it’s worth, the Rebels are in the Surf division; the Sand bracket is reserved for low to mid-major schools. The other two members of the Surf division are Minnesota and Cal Baptist. Fellow MWC squad Fresno State won the first edition a year ago, so maybe that’s a good sign for UNLV.
What have the Runnin’ Rebs done well in the early going? They are making their money on the defensive end, measuring out very highly in defensive efficiency ratings. They are suffocating opponents with their length, harassing them into 38% shooting from the field. The aggressive half-court defensive style preferred by second year coach Kevin Kruger has yielded the desired results, as UNLV has forced at least 20 turnovers in all four of their games. That makes this last statistic even more remarkable; Rebels opponents have only attempted 45 free throws through four games, an average of 11 attempts per game. For context, UNLV has attempted 103. Some coaches prefer a more passive ‘don’t foul’ defensive philosophy, think Wisconsin. Some want to be aggressive and make the game frenetic. If you can play aggressively and still not foul, you are working with a winning formula.
The offense has not clicked as well so far, which sometimes is the case early in a season. Perimeter shooting has really been below par, as the Rebs are hitting a paltry 27% of their 3 point attempts. Leading scorer Keshon Gilbert can claim exemption from that list, as he has connected on 9 of 14 from deep, but he will need another threat to emerge to stretch opposing defenses. Luckily for UNLV, they have been able to score off of turnovers and on the fast break. Turnovers have been a problem at times, as they are committing more than 15 per game, a shade too high. EJ Harkless is the second leading scorer, even though his shots are not falling from the outside. He has gotten to the foul line at a high rate, a sign that he’s willing to attack the basket and not just settle for jumpers.
Southern Illinois is similar to UNLV in several ways. Starting with hanging their hat on the defensive end, as they also hold opponents to under 60 ppg. They really stress defending the perimeter, allowing teams to shoot the 3 at only a 24% clip. That might be a massive plus against some teams, but as noted earlier, the 3-pointer isn’t a huge weapon for the Rebels, so that strength of SIU is somewhat mitigated. The Salukis don’t wow you with size or athleticism, they simply play to the scouting report, a nod to head coach Bryan Mullins and his staff. They want to take away what you do best. Last time out they held Tennessee State to 44, and only 17 in the second half.
Unfortunately for SIU, they also struggle offensively, even more so than the Rebels from behind the arc, clocking in at 26%. Contrary to UNLV, they don’t really supplement their half-court offense with transition buckets, and they do not get to the foul line at a high rate. They also play at a very slow pace, ranking in the bottom 10% in adjusted tempo per KenPom. The Salukis are rarely in a hurry, instead content to burn the shot clock, searching for the best look they can get each time down the floor. They also are usually willing to sacrifice the offensive glass to get back in transition. That would seem to be the game plan tonight as well. They do possess two double figure scorers, in Marcus Domask, and Lance Jones. Hold either of them below their average, and UNLV will be in great shape.
This has all the makings of a 12 rounder. Whoever can absorb the body blows better will be in position to grab the W in the last few minutes, since it’s unlikely either team hits a Mike Tyson style knockout punch early. Points should be at a premium as these are two well-coached defensive oriented teams. They are also veteran, senior-laden squads. It would not be a surprise to see a halftime score in the 28-22 range, and frankly, SIU will have trouble getting into the 60’s. Their win over Oklahoma State was impressive, but they trailed by double figures in the late stages, and the Cowboys collapsed down the stretch, almost handing the win to the Salukis. They are undersized at almost every position here, so rebounding should be a huge advantage for UNLV. With perimeter shooting a work in progress for both squads, and Mullins likely to focus on shutting down the Rebels transition game, this one might come down to intangibles and winning plays. UNLV trailed at the half in both of its last two outings, and there has been no panic, they are comfortable playing from behind. The difference here may be one or two key offensive rebounds, or a forced turnover. Either of those are likely to be in the favor of UNLV. It may not be pretty, but it says here the Runnin’ Rebels find a way to get to 5-0 and will play for a championship on Wednesday night.
Prediction: UNLV 63 Southern Illinois 56
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