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Rebels vs Cowboys

Steve Marcus

UNLV guard Dedan Thomas Jr. (11) takes the ball upcourt against Wyoming during the second half of an NCAA basketball game at the Thomas & Mack Center Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. STEVE MARCUS

  • What:
    UNLV vs. New Mexico
  • When:
    Saturday, 5 p.m.
  • Where:
    Albuquerque, N.M.
  • TV:
    CBS Sports Network
  • Radio:
    1100AM, 100.9FM

The second bye of the Mountain West season came at the perfect time for the UNLV basketball team. They’ve got nine games behind them and nine games ahead of them, and they just got a week off to prepare for the second-half gauntlet, which begins Saturday with a road trip to No. 25 New Mexico (5 p.m., CBS Sports Network).

A look at what UNLV will be up against as the stretch run begins:

Second half is new opportunity

If you were to sum up the first half of the Mountain West season, the most apt descriptor for UNLV would probably be “missed opportunity.”

The Scarlet and Gray spent the first half of the conference slate proving they can play with just about anyone, but some late blown leads (Utah State and Colorado State) and an inexplicable home loss to last-place Air Force have left them with a 5-4 record at the midway point.

Could UNLV reasonably be 6-3, or even 7-2? Sure. But head coach Kevin Kruger doesn’t want his team looking back and playing the what-if game. A three-game winning streak has gotten them back in the conversation, and that’s where he wants the focus to be.

Kruger thinks his guys have done enough to stay in the race, with enough time left to make a move — if they keep playing as well as they have over their current streak.

“We should be playing confidently,” Kruger said. “We’ve played eight really good games. We’ve done a lot of really good things. Like a handful of teams, we’re right in the middle of it, in the thick of it.”

Standings watch

Despite some devastating losses, UNLV has clawed its way back to relevancy in the Mountain West standings. After beating Wyoming on Saturday, the Scarlet and Gray were in a tie for fifth place, which is an important cutoff, as the top five teams at the end of the year receive a first-round bye in the MWC tournament.

Colorado State won a game in the meantime, moving them to 6-4 and sole possession of fifth place. UNLV is currently tied with UNR for sixth place. New Mexico, Utah State and San Diego State are tied for first at 7-3, so as crazy as it sounds, UNLV is only one game behind first in the loss column.

It’s not going to be easy for UNLV to make up ground over the next nine games. Starting with Saturday’s tilt at New Mexico, five of the remaining contests are on the road, and three of the four home games are against likely NCAA Tournament teams, so easy victories will be few and far between.

There is some good news. UNLV has two games remaining against UNR, and Kruger is 4-0 against the Wolf Pack since becoming head coach. He’s also 3-1 against New Mexico, including an 83-73 win on Jan. 9, so if those track records hold, UNLV could rise in the standings while collecting important tiebreakers.

UNLV hasn’t received a bye in the MWC tourney since the 2019-20 season, when first-year coach T.J. Otzelberger carved out a 12-6 record in league play. It would be difficult to get back this year — but not impossible.

Double down

Post offense has been an important element for UNLV this season, with senior center Kalib Boone (and at a lesser volume, junior forward Rob Whaley) setting up on the low block and serving as the offense’s first option.

It has led to some explosive games for Boone (29 points on 11-of-16 FGs against New Mexico), but as Mountain West teams have begun scouting him more intently, they are starting to devise schemes to lessen his impact. The big adjustment so far has been aggressive double teams.

Opponents now routinely send an extra defender at Boone, and UNLV’s counter has been a work in progress. Boone was harassed into four turnovers in a Jan. 6 loss to San Diego State, and he had five giveaways in a Jan. 19 loss at Colorado State. In UNLV’s win over Wyoming, Boone was held scoreless (0-of-6 FGs) while committing a pair of turnovers in 17 minutes.

Boone said he has dealt with doubles for his entire career, but he has never been featured so prominently in his college career, so there has been an adjustment period as he navigates the different types of traps that are being laid for him.

“It’s tricky,” Boone said. “Some people will come trap me on the catch, some will wait until I do the drop-step move, like Colorado State did. Some will just literally be pulled over, just waiting right there for me when I get it. So [I’ve] got to read it and also communicate with my teammates, coaches.”

Boone has had a very good season, leading UNLV in scoring a 12.4 points per game while shooting an efficient 60.0% from the field. If he can find a way to mitigate the double teams and deliver more consistent production over the second half, the team will benefit.

The key, he said, is to rely on his teammates.

“I trust my teammates to make the plays,” Boone said. “I make the simple pass, let them take over. And if they do their part for me, at some point the double-teams will stop coming, then I can do my thing.”

Brooklyn earns a spot

As recently as a couple weeks ago, it looked like the 2023-24 season was going to be a “watch and learn” situation for freshman guard Brooklyn Hicks. Playing time was hard to come by, and a preseason injury had put him behind track, so expecting him to break into the rotation this late in the year was not realistic.

Then senior guard Justin Webster sprained his ankle, and Hicks got a shot. The results have been eye-opening.

Hicks has been a revelation, bringing speed, bounce and much needed energy as a key backcourt reserve. He has logged between 18 and 21 minutes in each of the last three contests and made the most of it, hitting 8-of-11 from the field and 3-of-3 from 3-point range while playing strong, opportunistic defense.

And most importantly, UNLV has thrived with him on the floor. In Hicks’ 18 minutes at San Jose State, UNLV outscored the Spartans by 19 points. Hicks was also +6 against Fresno State and +10 against Wyoming. That works out to an outstanding +35 in 58 minutes.

How do you take a player like that out of the lineup? You don’t.

Webster practiced this week and should be ready to return to game action soon, but Kruger said Hicks has earned a role going forward.

“Brooklyn has done great,” Kruger said. “His number was called when Web was out, starting with San Jose, and he stepped in and had a good game and had good practices, with good intent and good games since then. When Web is back and healthy and ready, it just gives us one more weapon.”

Misfiring

UNLV’s biggest weakness is still volume shooting. The team ranks 182nd in the nation in 3-point accuracy (33.6%), and only two Mountain West teams are worse (San Diego State at 33.4% and Utah State at 30.2%).

That makes it tough to win in today’s game, and UNLV’s most enthusiastic shooters are the issue. Three players are averaging more than five long-distance attempts per game, and they are not hitting enough to justify that volume: Keylan Boone leads with 5.5 attempts and is only hitting 32.5%, Webster is taking 5.1 and making a career-low 29.7, and Luis Rodriguez is taking 5.0 and making 32.7%.

An optimist would look at the career numbers for Boone and Webster, both fifth-year seniors with prior campaigns above 40% from deep, and suggest they’ll bounce back over the second half of the conference season, but that’s a dangerous assumption.

It might help to give the team’s better shooters more opportunities to launch. Junior guard Jackie Johnson is hitting a team-best 38.2% but only taking 3.2 per game. Freshman point guard D.J. Thomas is converting 36.2% of his triples while trying only 2.8 per game.

The question is, could Johnson or Thomas maintain those rates if they started shooting more? It’s not that always that simple.

Johnson has been hot during the winning streak, hitting 4-of-7 over those three games, and attributed his accuracy to hard work — and picking his spots.

“I feel really good,” he said. “I’ve put in the work with it. My coaches and teammates got me in the right spots to be successful, so that’s really helped.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

Article written by #LasVegasSun

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