Mountain West Basketball: UNLV vs. Southern Miss--Preview, Odds, Prediction

Mountain West Basketball: UNLV vs. Southern Miss--Preview, Odds, Prediction

Mountain West Basketball

Mountain West Basketball: UNLV vs. Southern Miss--Preview, Odds, Prediction


Mountain West Basketball: UNLV vs. Southern Miss–Preview, Odds, Prediction

Rebels, Golden Eagles meet in Vegas & @MWCwire

Game 12: Southern Miss Golden Eagles (11-1) @ UNLV Runnin’ Rebels (10-1)
When: Thursday, December 22 – 7:00 PT
Where: Thomas & Mack Center; Las Vegas, NV
How To Watch: Livestream on Mountain West Network
Odds: UNLV -8 Over/Under 142

No need to panic. It’s only one loss after all. Sure, UNLV suffered their first L of the 2022-23 campaign on Saturday, blowing a sizable halftime lead and falling to a capable San Francisco squad. But basketball is not an undefeated sport, and it’s ok to lose a game occasionally, even if it’s one you think you let get away. The key is, how do you handle the loss? We’ll get an answer to that on Thursday night, when the Runnin’ Rebels play their final non-conference game of the season, hosting Southern Miss at the Thomas & Mack Center.

When this game was scheduled, it had all the look of a nice ‘buy game’ nestled in between a couple of challenging games (Washington State, San Francisco) and the start of conference play following Christmas. After all, Southern Miss was 7-26 a season ago, and head coach Jay Ladner had a total of 24 wins in his 3 years at the helm. To boot, the Golden Eagles had just changed conferences, moving from Conference USA to the Sun Belt, and were commonly picked either 13th or 14th in their new 14 team league. The problem is, someone forgot to tell Ladner and his troops that they were supposed to be non-competitive in 2022-23.

USM has blistered out of the gate at 11-1, their best start in over 30 years. Ladner already has set a career high in wins before the calendar hits January, and their only loss was at the buzzer to an upstart Northwestern State team that has also upset nationally-ranked TCU. As for the 11 wins, it hasn’t exactly been a murderer’s row that the Golden Eagles have mowed down. They do sport two nice road wins, at Vanderbilt and at Liberty. They also have three wins over NAIA opponents, and their last three wins have all come against teams ranked in the bottom 10 in KenPom out of 363 Division I programs. This is not to throw heat at Ladner; when you’ve won 9, 8, and 7 games in your three years, you’re changing league affiliations, and you’re retooling your roster, you take wins wherever you can find them to build confidence in your team. Southern Miss has done that and should be lauded for taking care of business. It’s just something to keep in mind when looking at their season-long statistics.

Enough about the schedule, let’s take a look at the personnel. Every team deals with transfer portal issues in college athletics, but the Golden Eagles had an incredible eight players leave the program after last season. Ladner needed to completely restart, which in hindsight was probably the best thing that could have happened, and he did so by bringing in six transfers of his own. DeAndre Pinckney is the lone returning starter, and he has done damage inside and outside, averaging 11 and 7. His frontcourt mate Felipe Haase has been the most productive Golden Eagle, leading the team at 17 ppg, and also snagging 7 boards. The Mercer transfer has hit an outstanding 29 of 54 from downtown (54%). Haase and Pinckney at 6’9” and 6’8” are the tallest players on the roster, so the Rebels will enjoy a bit of a size advantage.

The backcourt has been serviceable but slightly less stable. Ole Miss transfer Austin Crowley leads the team by a wide margin in field goals attempted and 3’s attempted, and is scoring 16 a game. Expect him to fire early and often from deep tonight. Denijay Harris is an athletic wing, great at attacking the basket and finishing at the rim, but he missed several games with cracked ribs. He played a few minutes in their last outing, and should dress here, but may not be 100%. USM will also be without Neftali Alvarez, who started the first few games of the season, but has been out of action for over a month. One major reason for the turnaround from year to year is that this version of the Golden Eagles is taking care of the basketball. Turnovers were a huge problem a season ago, and that has completely flipped to this point in 2022. They possess a massive assist to turnover ratio in the positive column, and are actually forcing quite a bit of turnovers themselves with their pressure defense. They will extend it into the full court at times as well.

For UNLV, it’s all about getting back on the horse. Continue to excel in the areas that you do well in, and improve the areas that are not up to par. The defense has been the calling card, as everybody knows, and while they may not have had their best effort against USF, they still held the Dons to 43% shooting. The problem was they could not stop Zane Meeks, who converted 8-10 shots from inside, and corralled 17 rebounds, including six offensive. Cleaning up the glass, or the lack of it, has been developing into a problem for a few games now, and it finally bit the Rebs on Saturday, as they gave up 15 second chance points. You have to assume that with a few extra practices, coach Kevin Kruger has hammered that home to his charges. The size advantage UNLV possesses will not automatically fix that tonight, as they had the same edge against Hawaii two weeks ago, and still gave up 17 offensive rebounds.

The offense is really what let the Rebels down against the Dons, primarily in the second half. It may have been a case of fool’s gold from the first 20 minutes, when they knocked down a whopping seven 3’s. They followed that up with a 1-10 from downtown in the final 20 minutes, and didn’t take advantage of one of their best weapons – the foul line, attempting only one free throw in half number two. While Keshon Gilbert (51%) and Justin Webster (48%) have been proficient from deep, the Rebs are not a great outside shooting team. Of more concern is the fact that the two players attempting the most shots from behind the arc (EJ Harkless and Luis Rodriguez) have super low percentages, 26% and 29% respectively. A case of looking at the stat sheet and better shot selection for UNLV may be needed in short order. Both Harkless and Rodriguez average double-figures, and their offense is important, but they are more effective when attacking the basket or from the mid-range as opposed to just firing away from 24 feet.

As mentioned in the open, a lot of this game will come down to the mental toughness of UNLV. Yes, Southern Miss is improved, and they are dangerous, but they have not faced anything remotely resembling the defense they will see tonight. As per KenPom, the overall defenses they have faced ranks bottom 10 in the country. The only possible comparison is Vandy, and while the Golden Eagles got a win in Nashville, they only scored 60 points. There may be a lot of possessions in this one, as both teams tend to play a tad on the faster side, but it would be shocking were USM to approach their season average of 80 ppg. The Runnin’ Rebels have a talent edge, and have been far more battle tested. Will they have a hangover after Saturday’s defeat? Every sport at all levels has examples of teams running off long winning streaks, and when that streak finally comes to an end, it’s difficult to answer the bell the next time out. It’s especially true of undefeated teams to start a campaign. Once that first loss occurs, the bubble has burst, the air has been left out of the balloon, and the same edge is not there in practice ahead of the upcoming game. Call it the two-game theory maybe? If UNLV can avoid this pitfall, they should secure their 11th win. It says here they will, even if it’s a little too close for comfort.

Prediction: UNLV 71 Southern Miss 65



More MWWire