Each year, when Colorado State and UNLV meet on the hardwood, it looks like a mismatch on paper.
The Runnin’ Rebels, considered one of the elite programs on the West Coast over the past 25 years, roll into town with a number of highly-rated recruits in tow, looking like a Final Four team walking off of the bus.
This year is no different. UNLV boasts a lineup of players that most programs would kill for, headlined by former-five star recruit and projected lottery pick Stephen Zimmerman Jr.
But don’t let the flash fool you, because if this game is like any of the previous ones between the Rams and Rebels, this should be a good one.
Obviously, each of these teams has a new look from last season. For CSU, gone is the trio of Stanton Kidd, Daniel Bejarano and JJ Avila, and the Rams will also be without the services of leading scorer Gian Clavell, who is sidelined for the year with hand and shoulder injuries.
But the Rebels also have a very different look to them, too. Arguably their two best players last season, Rashad Vaughn and Christian Wood, entered the NBA Draft early, with Vaughn being selected by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, while Wood went undrafted.
In to the replace them came Oregon transfer Ben Carter, Rutgers transfer Jerome Seagers, Mercer transfer Ike Nwamu, high-flying top-100 recruit Derrick Jones Jr. and the aformentioned Zimmerman.
By just looking at the pedigrees and sheer size of the Rebels compared to CSU’s patchwork roster, which mainly consists of guards, you’d think UNLV would run away with this one. But here’s what CSU will have to do to pull off the upset.
Slow the game down
It seems counter-intuitive to tell a team full of guards who love to shoot the 3-ball to slow down, but CSU really doesn’t want to get into a game of run-and-gun with UNLV. The Rams have neither the depth nor the athletes to slow down UNLV in a fast-paced game. The Rebels aren’t particularly efficient on offense, ranking 210th (out of 351 teams) in points per 100 possessions, according to KenPom. UNLV is however, in the top-80 nationally in adjusted tempo, logging about 71 possessions per game.
CSU isn’t far behind, with just over 70 possessions per game, but the Rams are far more efficient, ranking 83rd in points per 100 possessions. So what does all this mean? CSU has to be deliberate on offense, and cannot afford to get into a game where they launch bad shots early in the shot clock, which is what they’ve done at different times in their six losses.
Ball movement for good 3-point looks
It could be a rough night inside for CSU’s post players, who will face one of the longest front lines in the Mountain West in Zimmerman, Carter, Jones and Dwayne Morgan. That doesn’t mean that Tiel Daniels, Emmanuel Omogbo and Kimani Jackson can’t be effective, though. At multiple times this season, including their wins over Oakland and Northern Iowa, CSU has had great ball movement inside and out, causing lots of problems for defense with their array of outside shooters.
Don’t expect the Rams to get a ton of points in the paint tonight because of UNLV’s length, but if they can drive and kick effectively, and knock down open 3-pointers, they’ll have a good shot to steal this one.
Get the crowd into the game
We’ve hit the homestretch of winter break, and there’s probably quite a few CSU students who have gotten tired of their parents asking about their future plans after graduation (or maybe that’s just me.) I’d expect to see a decent student section, because UNLV is a well-known team and students need an excuse to get off the couch and do something. The Runnin’ Rebels usually draw a pretty good crowd at Moby Arena, and the Rams will have to use it to their advantage in this one. Last season, CSU dug itself an early, 18-point hole before clawing back to within two at the break. The Rams rode some hot 3-point shooting and the raucous crowd to hold on for an 83-82 victory.
CSU will have to avoid a start like that this year, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to keep UNLV coach Dave Rice winless at Moby Arena.
Collegian Senior Sports Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.