Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
A tumultuous start to Mountain West play provides an interesting context for a game featuring two teams with strong non-conference resumes, #50 Nevada Las Vegas (14-4, 2-2) and #30 Brigham Young (14-3, 2-1).
BYU had an excellent start to the season, running off 10 straight wins, but that was mostly against token competition, with conference leaders Utah St. and Long Beach the possible exceptions. The Cougars then lost a controversial finish against Arizona St., and saw their national-best home winning streak come to an end when current #1 Wake Forest came to town. They started MWC play well, but got throttled by nearly twenty at New Mexico on Saturday, their first big loss of the season. UNLV picked up the MWC’s highest profile win when it went to Louisville and edged the Cardinals, and also picked up good wins over UTEP and Arizona in the non-conference. However, the Rebels have had a shocking conference start, beating New Mexico at home, but dropping games at TCU and at a Colorado St. team expected to struggle. They bounced back on Saturday against Wyoming, but this poor show of form on the road must be worrisome.
BYU is one of the nation’s best teams at scoring inside, shooting nearly 58% from two and rarely getting shots blocked. This ability inside has been the critical to the Cougars offense, along with being able to play at a high pace while avoiding turnovers. BYU doesn’t get to the free throw line much, and isn’t great on the offensive glass, but it’s been efficient in spite of this. UNLV matches up strength-for-strength with the Cougars: a good interior defending team that can force turnovers. While these areas are strengths, the Rebels haven’t consistently played well enough to match BYU’s offensive prowess. The one caveat for the Cougars is that they struggled to make shots against New Mexico; if they can’t find their shooting form, their offense will be a severely reduced threat.
UNLV’s attack focuses on the perimeter: it takes a lot of three pointers, but makes only an average amount, and doesn’t get a whole lot of points inside or at the free throw line. The Rebels do demonstrate some very good ball control, rarely giving up the ball, but they will have a lot of trouble keeping the possession margin even, as Brigham Young should dominate the glass. BYU are 5th in the nation in defending the boards, and when you consider that UNLV are below average getting offensive rebounds, the result is not good for Rebel fans. The average shooting that UNLV has displayed will not be good enough if it is consistently held to only a single chance each time down the floor.
Last year’s MWC Co-Player of the Year, Lee Cummard, is a real force inside for the Cougars, second in the conference with more than 17 points a game, and averaging over 6 rebounds as well. Cummard is a very good three-point shooter, but shines on the inside, where he has hit over 60% of his shots. Twice this season he has cracked the 30 point barrier, and his 36-and-11 game against Long Beach, in which he missed just 2 shots, is one of the performances of the season to date. BYU is far from a one-man show, though, as it features a second player who averages more than 17-and-6 in Brazilian Jonathan Tavernari, a 6-6 junior who is a rebounding force, but takes more than 50% of his shots from outside, where his percentage is merely average. Tavernari is also second in the MWC in steals, and between them Cummard and Tavernari are one of the best duos in the country. The Cougars boast a third player who has been quite impressive in sophomore guard Jimmer Fredette, who averages nearly 15 points a game, shoots very well both inside and outside, and is second in the MWC in assists. These three players combine for more than 60% of the Cougars’ scoring, and are a difficult matchup for any opponent. Guard Emery Jackson is an effective starter who has a solid shot and takes care of the ball, while 6-11 forward Chris Miles is useful player inside, but doesn’t take a big offensive role. The Cougars run a fairly short bench, with a couple of guards, good-shooting junior Lamont Morgan and freshman Charles Abouo, being the most utilized reserves.
A pair of strong seniors are critical to UNLV’s success, guards Wink Adams and Rene Rougeau. Adams leads the team in scoring, but has really taken a big step backwards this season, seeing his 3-point percentage fall below 25%, and also doing much worse from the free-throw line. Adams has struggled in the conference season, under 37% from the field in the Rebels’ first four games. Rougeau, on the other hand, has had a strong season, shooting nearly 60% and sitting in the top 3 in the MWC in rebounds, steals and blocks. Tre’von Willis also starts in the backcourt, and like Adams, has not shot particularly well, especially from two. Oscar Bellfield is a fourth guard who has started at times, but recently found himself on the bench at the beginning of games. The freshman leads the team in assists, and has shown very good ball control and shot-making for a young player. Joe Darger and Darris Santee start as forwards; Darger is primarily a perimeter shooter, and a fairly effective one, while Santee is a solid inside scorer and rebounder. Kendall Wallace and Mareceo Rutledge are both solid shooters off the bench, while 6-10 freshman Brice Massamba represents most of the bench minutes in the frontcourt.
Neither team has shown the form that one might have expected entering conference play, but this should still be a well-played match-up between two strong MWC contenders. While Wake broke BYU’s home winning streak, the Marriott Center is still a tough place to get a win, and the combination of the Cougars’ domination on the glass and strong inside shooting will probably spell a continuation of a disappointing conference start for the visitors.
Winner: Brigham Young Margin: 6-10
-- Evan Dorey's rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple, all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.
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About Evan Dorey
Evan Dorey - Game Previews
A recent university graduate from Markham, Ontario, who loves analyzing the statistics of sports in general, and college basketball in particular.