Mountain West Basketball: UNLV vs. Minnesota–Preview, Odds, Prediction
Runnin’ Rebels, Gophers battle for SoCal Challenge title
Game 6: UNLV Runnin’ Rebels (5-0) vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-1)
When: Wednesday, November 23rd – 7:30 PT
Where: JSerra Pavilion; San Juan Capistrano, CA
How to Watch: CBS Sports Network
Odds: UNLV -3 Over/Under 126
There’s a championship on the line Wednesday night in southern California for the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. It might be the SoCal Challenge, and not the Mountain West Conference tournament, but any chance to grab some hardware will put a little extra juice in your step. Both the Rebels, and their title game opponent, the Big 10’s Minnesota, earned their way here with hard-fought, low scoring wins Monday night.
For UNLV, it followed the same pattern as some of their recent successes. Struggle to make shots early, keep the game close with your defense, trail at the half, and then find a way to make enough plays late to win. Though coach Kevin Kruger would prefer more complete efforts for 40 minutes, he’s got to love the resiliency and lack of panic his men are showing, as it gives them a belief that they are never out of a game.
It took the Rebels 12 minutes to hit double figures versus Southern Illinois, and it doesn’t figure to get much easier against Minnesota. The Gophers get after it defensively, and are holding their opponents to low shooting percentages, much the same as UNLV. As we discussed before Monday’s game, against many teams, that gives you an edge. The Runnin’ Rebs are a different animal though, and they are fine cobbling points together in different ways depending on what the matchup looks like.
Tonight’s matchup may provide an edge on the glass. Minnesota allows a staggering 16 offensive rebounds per game, and it has not exactly come against a murderer’s row (more on that later). This will be a point of emphasis Kruger hammers home to his stable of athletic wings and bigs in the pregame walk through – get on the offensive glass! The Gophers have height in their lineup, but 6 ’11” forward Dawson Garcia is more of a finesse offensive player, and the rest of the frontcourt is inexperienced. At this point in the season, they are not the toughest, most physical group the Rebels will have played. There will be an opportunity for UNLV to turn this into a big advantage tonight with their experienced rotation.
Another area of strength for the Rebels has been creating turnovers, and they did it again on Monday, forcing 21 by the Salukis. Each of their five opponents have turned it over at least 20 times against UNLV’s defense. That is probably not sustainable, but there is just no room to breathe in the half-court against the length and positioning of the defenders. Sometimes it’s quick hands leading to a steal, sometimes it’s Luis Rodriguez stepping in to take a charge. Whatever it is, it’s keeping teams from getting up shots against the Rebels. Minnesota already plays at the 7th slowest pace in the entire country, as measured by KenPom’s tempo rating. They don’t figure to improve upon that number tonight.
What can the Rebels expect from Minnesota offensively? Garcia is leading them with 16 ppg right now, and has the most attempts from 3-point land. The most prolific shooter, and performer however, is guard Ta’lon Cooper. The 6’4” Morehead State transfer has been the catalyst thus far, scoring 11 a game, and dishing out a tremendous 7.5 assists per outing. For good measure he collects 5 rebounds per contest and has made 8-13 from downtown. Look for Kruger to rotate fresh defenders on Cooper to try and cut off the head of the snake, as Cooper rarely leaves the floor. Second year coach Ben Johnson doesn’t like to go much deeper than 7 for his rotation, which is what he did in the overtime win against Cal Baptist on Monday night. One of those is Jamison Battle, who garnered preseason all-Big Ten recognition. Battle made his season debut in that Monday game, after missing the start of the campaign with a foot injury. He struggled offensively as he works himself into shape, but averaged 17 points a game last year, so the Rebels will be aware of him on the scouting report. Another Gopher to keep an eye on is Pharrel Payne. The 6’9” freshman forward went for 15 and 13 against the Lancers.
The Rebels could use some points from the bench and supporting cast. Only 3 players – Keshon Gilbert, EJ Harkless, and Rodriguez – scored more than 4 points against SIU. When you’re playing super low scoring games, you are not going to have five guys getting into double figures, but getting anywhere from 5-9 points from Elijah Parquet, David Muoka, Jackie Johnson would help. UNLV also only attempted nine free throws on Monday, and that may not go up against Minnesota, who actually fouls less than the Rebels do. Sometimes that is dependent on the 3 men with the whistles, but until the last minute, if and when someone needs to foul to extend the game, the charity stripe might not have a lot of usage in this one.
How is this one going to play out? UNLV has started 5-0 for the first time in five years, and while not all of the wins have been pretty, they still go in the column under W. Moving forward, the Rebels will need to figure out how to be more efficient offensively, but as is often the case with well-coached teams in basketball, the defense is ahead of the offense. As for Minnesota, there are a couple of things to note. First, they have played a very poor schedule, ranking in the bottom 10 in the nation. Coach Johnson was looking to build confidence in his troops by racking up some early season wins, and has to be pleased with a 4-1 start. But, with the possible exception of DePaul, they have not seen anything remotely close to the athleticism and defensive intensity they will see tonight. That DePaul outing is the only loss of the season for the Golden Gophers, falling 69-53 at home. Also, if the game comes down to the foul line, there is a massive advantage for UNLV. Minnesota is shooting 54% as a team, one of the five worst percentages in the entire country. They have zero players shooting even 70% from the line, an amazing and abysmal statistic by college basketball standards.
This shapes up similarly to Monday’s game, and the SoCal Challenge Committee did a great job of getting four very even programs for this event. Neither team is likely to run away and hide, and Kruger will just hope his charges hang around early, until they can make some adjustments and perform their usual 2nd half routine. Anything better than that would be considered a bonus. It might not be pretty, but it says here the turkey will taste a little better on Thursday after the Runnin’ Rebels earn themselves a championship.
Prediction: UNLV 66 Minnesota 59
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