Mountain West Basketball: Nevada vs. Air Force–Preview, Odds, Prediction
Wolfpack, Falcons meet in final game of 2022
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What: Nevada Wolfpack (11-3, 1-0) @ Air Force Falcons (9-5, 0-1)
When: Saturday, December 31st – 12:00 PM MT, 11:00 AM PT
Where: Clune Arena; USAFA, CO
How To Watch: Livestream on Mountain West Network
Odds: Nevada -3 Over/Under 131
After a thrilling opening night of action in the Mountain West Conference, we get one more play date Saturday before the calendar flips to 2023. Three of the five games were decided on the last possession or in overtime, and that is probably more a sign of things to come, as opposed to an outlier. One of those nail biters involved Nevada, who pulled out a back-and-forth affair over returning league champion Boise State. Air Force meanwhile had the tough opening night task of a road game at preseason league favorite San Diego State. Predictably the Falcons came up short, though they battled to the end. Now the two will meet in an early afternoon start before the ball drops on New Year’s Eve.
It’s becoming quite apparent to anyone paying attention that the MWC is going to be an absolute meat grinder for the next two months. For the sake of the conference’s postseason aspirations, the hope is that there is not too much cannibalization, though it’s entirely possible that is what happens. On Wednesday night, all five games were won by the home team, and that includes a couple of upsets. If this matchup was in Reno, the Wolfpack would be a large favorite. With Air Force as the home team it’s a near toss-up. Nevada will need to bring their ‘A’ game to open league play 2-0.
Part of what makes AF difficult to prepare for is their style of play, implemented by third year coach Joe Scott. Because of the Academy’s requirements and restrictions for their cadets, the Falcons will never be the tallest or most physically gifted team. What they will be, for obvious reasons, is a tremendously disciplined squad. That’s perfect for the Princeton-style motion offense Scott runs, an offense based on timing, precision, and patience. Air Force plays at a super slow pace, valuing the basketball and waiting for a good shot; basically hoping for a breakdown by the defense that they can exploit. Unfortunately for the Falcons, none of this was going to bode well in the Wednesday game versus San Diego State – for various reasons. First, the Aztecs are a defense first team, and are almost as disciplined as the Falcons. More importantly though was the added prep time SDSU had in advance of the matchup. The extra practice time allows for additional reps against the motion offense.
Unsurprisingly, Air Force shot only 42% from the field and scored 15 points below their average. The Aztecs completely put the clamps on their two leading scorers – Corbin Green and Jake Heidbreder. The duo averages a shade under 30 points per game, but were harassed by San Diego State’s length, shot a combined 3-14 from the field, and totaled 8 points. While Nevada boss Steve Alford will attempt to limit these two in the same way, they will probably find the sledding a tad easier on Saturday.
For the Wolfpack, they are also coming off a game against a tough, physical defensive minded opponent in Boise State. Nevada trailed for much of the second half, and found themselves down seven in the late stages, before Will Baker converted some clutch baskets in the paint. Kenan Blackshear then closed the deal, with not one, but two drives to the hole in the final minute to give his team the lead. The last one came with 4 seconds left and proved to be the game winner. Blackshear finished with a team-high 20 points and added 5 assists.
Much like Air Force’s offense, their defense is tricky to prepare for as well. It combines principles of a switching man-to-man (common in today’s game) with match-up zone concepts (uncommon). In theory, this will prevent a lot of the straight-line drives that Blackshear excels at, so that’s something to keep an eye on. They also stress taking away the three-point line, and as a result, opponents are shooting a paltry 27% from behind the arc. Something to keep in mind when looking at all of the Falcons statistics, is their poor strength of schedule. Prior to the game against the Aztecs, Air Force had not played a team near the top 150 in KenPom, and that’s why their SOS was 362 out of 363 teams. While the numbers may come back near the median, you can still get a sense of what AF stresses defensively. Nevada did hit 10 threes in the Wednesday night victory, though aside from Jarod Lucas and Nick Davidson, they are not shooting a very good % from deep. Lucas would absolutely qualify as a shooter, and averages three made 3’s per game. Davidson has far fewer attempts, but is hitting 45% of his looks.
The Wolfpack possess weapons at all levels, between Lucas’s shooting, Blackshear attacking the rim, and Baker in the post. Nevada’s best option in this one may be Baker. The 7-footer is the reigning Mountain West player of the week, off several huge games and he will have a distinct size advantage against the Falcons undersized front line. He finishes well inside, and does a good job of drawing contact and getting to the foul line too, where he connects on 87% of his attempts. One thing Nevada lacks is a bit of depth. Projected starting point guard Hunter McIntosh suffered a preseason knee injury and is out indefinitely. Backup big KJ Hymes is out with a back injury as well. Alford normally likes to play at a fairly quick pace, but has wisely adjusted to his roster this year and slowed it down. They are also taking excellent care of the basketball, averaging barely 10 turnovers per game.
These teams actually have similarities in several statistical categories. They both have top notch metrics in field goal defense, Air Force’s continues to 3-point defense, while Nevada’s is in defending 2-point fg’s. They both take advantage of the foul line, getting there at a high rate, and they both are willing to sacrifice offensive rebounds to stop transition the other way.
This is a tricky matchup for the Wolfpack, who on paper have the superior squad. If they’re going to get it done, it just may be their defense that is the difference. The three headed monster of Baker-Lucas-Blackshear (that’s likely a law firm somewhere) will get theirs despite being the focus of the Falcons game plan – Lucas primarily, as he has a knack for knocking in tough shots. It’s the role players that need to show up in road games, as their role player counterparts for Air Force will feel more comfortable at home.
This shapes up as a grind-it-out lower scoring game. Each team plays at a slow pace, there won’t be many offensive rebounds to be had, or transition baskets either. It also might take awhile to get the juices flowing, especially for the Wolfpack. They packed 8,000 into the Lawlor Events Center on Wednesday night. For a noon local start on New Year’s Eve, Clune Arena might struggle to get 1,000 through the gates. Furthermore, Nevada encountered some of the travel issues, that many in the west/southwest have been dealing with lately, in getting to Colorado. A defensive tussle also likely means a close game. Both teams have won close games, though clearly the Wolfpack are more battle-tested. They have the more experienced team, and rank 11th in the nation in free throw percentage (79%) should this one come down to the charity stripe. The initial hunch was to call an upset for the home team, but on second thought, this one may resemble Nevada’s opening night league win, secured in the last minute.
Prediction: Nevada 63 Air Force 59