Friday, December 21, 2012

Summarizing the week, and reflecting

The holidays have slowed my ability to write about and document the Runnin’ Rebels – but it also lends some greater perspective when summing up UNLV’s performance over the span of a week.

Since our last update, the Rebels have faced three foes, LaVerne, UTEP, and Northern Iowa.

What was encouraging about LaVerne, was Katin Reinhardt finding his range from outside the arc (4 for 6)– something he’s attempted to do quite frequently, and unfortunately nearly as frequently missed at. Another positive is that DaQuan Cook, who had planned to burn his redshirt and get some playing time, did that in this game. He played rather well, remember – he’s a pass first pure point guard, but he can score as well. Disappointing – Carlos Lopez-Sosa, who had a significant height advantage against LaVerne’s entire roster, managed limited offense and still was in foul trouble (4 fouls in 21 minutes). I love his skill set, size and attitude, but he really needs to figure out this foul trouble issue. I’m hopeful that Lopez-Sosa will enjoy the senior bump that other Rebel big men had (Brice Massamba, Quintrell Thomas) next season, and be able to play his game without fouling.

UTEP was a tough game. The Rebels strung together two average halves of basketball, playing great defense for the first half and not so much in the second. Although the Rebels scored exactly 31 points in both halves of play, the scoring came in bunches, and then trailed off late in the game for the Rebels. This allowed a UTEP team, who found some rhythm to score 38 points in the second half and put themselves in a position to steal the game on a last second three attempt by Konner Tucker.  The reason UNLV didn’t have a stellar outing perhaps revolved around UTEPS ability to contain Anthony Bennett, or perhaps AB just having an off night on his own (maybe a little of both). They say a win is a win, and that is surely undeniable, so we’ll take it and hopefully learn from it. Further proof that UTEP is a good team, is that several nights later (while we were playing UNI) UTEP took Oregon to triple overtime, and ended up beating them. Remember, Oregon is the lone opponent who beat us this year, and unfortunately snapped a 20 game home win streak. Another note was the first appearance of Khem Birch, although he didn’t get a whole lot going this game his potential to be great was definitely visible, and would show itself the following game at home.

Back at the Thomas and Mack, the Rebels faced the University of Northern Iowa on Wednesday the 19th of Dec. We were familiar with this team from a tragic loss in the NCAA tournament a few years back. Although Northern Iowa was supposed to be a very good team, we treated them like LaVerne in the first half and destroyed them. Anthony Bennett shook off his previous funk from UTEP, and Khem Birch arrived at just the right time to challenge foes in  the paint, as well as having some good post-up moves to the basket. In the UTEP game, Coach Rice played Bennett and Birch separately – not this time. They played brilliantly together, and in the absence of Mike Moser Birch got plenty of minutes to acclimate himself to the court, and the crowd. While he officially only had 1 block, there were many a play that a foul was called where Khem clearly would have executed tremendous blocks. In addition to the block, he notched nearly a double double, and had 2 steals. 

Bennett was enjoying himself considerably out there, he was dunking, shooting the three, and even pretending to be a nimble guard. The only thing left would be for him to jump into the crowd, grab a box of popcorn, and applaud his own performance. UNI got a little close with about 7-8 minutes left, but then the Rebels put them back within a safe distance, and finished out the game strong. Anthony Marshall shot 50% from three point land (3 of 6) and was a steady leader. Noticed that Anthony’s hand was wrapped, asked him about it today and he said it was fine – so that’s good. Given the dominance of the Rebels in this game, would have liked to see DaQuan Cook play a little more, he only was in the game for 4 minutes.

Summary, and reflection:
Beating people by jaw dropping margins – One distinction between the teams that are ranked 1-10 and us in the back of the rankings, is the margin by which they beat other teams. If you look at the current #1 Duke, they’ve beaten the teams that have no chance at making the tournament by a margin of 20-50 points. Better teams, closer obviously. Same thing with #2 Michigan, and so on and so on… Nonetheless, we’ve beaten bad teams by close margins. The only blowout I can see in our schedule was against D-III LaVerne, which in all candor should be expected. Part of the problem is not being able to string two really productive halves of basketball together on the defensive and offensive end. I think that the people who contribute to the AP and Coaches’ polls look at the blowouts and see that this is a team that dominates and demoralizes an opponent rather than merely being satisfied with just beating them. Time will tell if the Rebels get the respect they deserve, if there aren’t teams ahead of us who put a whoopin’ on weak teams but have lost more difficult games than we have.

Another thing that can help our ranking, is only losing to ranked teams. Unfortunately, our lone loss was to Oregon. They looked like they could crack the top-25 before UTEP beat them. Nonetheless, they will likely make the tournament and may even get past the first round based upon the talent they have. They should also be squarely in the mix to compete with Arizona for the Pac-12 title. Oregon was one of the better teams we faced in the non-conference schedule, but they unfortunately were not a ranked team. Obviously, had we beaten Oregon and then lost to Cincinnati, we would be sitting 3-4 spots better.

Media attention / perception – The Rebels are being buoyed and held back by reality and perception.
#1 Reality – Anthony Bennett is a lottery pick., which finally got their act together, now has Bennett projected the #8th pick to Phoenix. With many national media leaders, ESPN, CNNSI, etc proclaiming Anthony Bennett freshman of the year, and the same group putting him in the conversation for player of the year regardless of class – that brings a lot of attention to the Rebels. Unfortunately, that attention somehow has not translated into an increase in the rankings, whereas last year we were arguably ‘over-ranked’ when we hit #11 after beating #1UNC.

#2 Perception – Because a lot of casual national observers are only peripherially familiar with UNLV from last year, that group only knows about Mike Moser. Given that Mike Moser’s elbow dislocation was gruesome enough  to make the national news, many are under the impression that we are substantially hampered without Mike. This may be driving the diminished rankings as well.

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