Well, the game draws ever closer! Time to start learning more regarding our opponent, the UNLV Running Rebels. SBNation does not actually have a UNLV site. WHA?!?!? However, we do have two different opportunities to learn more.
First, we are talking with David Fucillo of NinersNation. Yes, that is right, the Niners site. Those red-loving Kaepernites, they secretly delight in Nevada destroying Cal in 2010. And a UNLV fan shall lead them. DAVID FUCILLO IS A MAN WHOSE LOVE FOR THE STATE OF NEVADA KNOWS NO BOUNDS!
He has emerged from the casinos and told the Elvis impersonators to be quiet for a moment, so he can answer some of our questions.
But wait! There's more! Read this post in the next 20 minutes (or, also, any time after the next 20 minutes) and we'll have a second set of answers (for some of the questions). Mike Grimala of RunRebs.com contacted us and we did a Q+A. He was a bit stingy with the questions (only 5), but I've added him answers here.
David Fucillo: I think UNLV pulls this one out. They barely won in Berkeley in December, but this Rebels team sufficiently different that they should be able to pull out another win. That team was forced to play without Mike Moser for most of the game, and also was playing without an ineligible Khem Birch. Moser dislocated his elbow and took much of the season to get back into form. Birch had to sit out the first semester as a transfer, but claimed Mountain West defensive player of the year with a dominant winter/spring performance in the paint. Adding that kind of defensive presence inside is a big addition.
UNLV has struggled to cover the spread this season, which could line up a fairly tight game. The Rebels have struggled in the tournament the last few years. Although these Rebels are experienced, it will be interesting to see if they come out tight, knowing their postseason history. That being said, there's just too much talent on this Rebels squad for me not to pick them.
Mike Grimala: Pretty much the same as yours. I think Bennett puts up 20 or so, and one of the UNLV wing players - either Reinhardt or Dejean-Jones - chips in 15 as the Rebels win by six or seven.
2. Who is the #1 player on offense for the Rebels?
David Fucillo: The Rebels top offensive player is the same guy who was playing so well when UNLV traveled to Cal in December. Anthony Bennett was named Mountain West freshman of the year and all-conference first team following a dominant freshman campaign. He finished the season averaging 16.1 points per game and 8.1 rebounds per game. While his defense is questionable at times, Bennett's offense is dynamic. His size allows him to dominate down in the paint, but he has a solid outside game as well. He plays either center or power forward depending on if Khem Birch and/or Mike Moser are in the game, which means he can draw out a big man when he is playing on the perimeter.
3. Who is the #1 player on defense for the Rebels?
David Fucillo: The Rebels top defensive player is also one of the biggest changes since the last time these two teams squared off. Center Khem Birch was named defensive player of the year, but was ineligible the first semester due to his transfer status. He became eligible two games after UNLV-Cal and has been a force inside for the Rebels. He has had at least one block in all but two of his games this year and has six games with at least four blocks. He does not start, but is generally one of the first guys off the bench.
4. What does UNLV need to do to win this game?
David Fucillo: It's pretty simple. UNLV needs to be hitting their shots. They play strong defense fairly consistently, but their offense can be all over the place. The key is getting contributions behind Anthony Bennett. They have struggled at times to figure out a consistent rotation with Bennett and Moser, since both often work best in the power forward role. The Rebels need to figure out those roles, and then could use a solid performance from freshman Katin Reinhardt. He has had strong games but as with most freshman long-ball shooters, a fair amount of inconsistency. He needs to find his shot against Cal.
Mike Grimala: As you mentioned, utilizing their size advantage will be key for UNLV. The big man rotation of Bennett, Birch and Moser need to close down the paint on defense, control the glass and give the Rebels opportunities for second-chance points. I see Birch playing a pivotal role. He was ineligible for the first meeting, but in 25 games this season, the 6-foot-9 sophomore has averaged 2.6 blocks per game, earning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year honors. If he can discourage guys like Crabbe and Justin Cobbs from coming into the paint, that's a win for UNLV.
And speaking of Crabbe and Cobbs, perimeter defense will obviously be hugely important for the Rebels. I don't think it's a terrible matchup for UNLV, because Anthony Marshall is one of the best defensive guards in the country. Opposing players have shot just 27.5 percent against him this season, and he helped hold Cobbs to 11 points on 3-of-10 shooting in the first meeting. If Marshall can slow Cobbs again, and the rest of the team can keep Crabbe from going off for 30-plus (easier said than done), UNLV probably advances.
5. What does Cal need to do to beat UNLV?
David Fucillo: If they can contest UNLV's shots, they should be able to make things happen on the defensive side of the ball. UNLV can get flustered when they are missing shots. Keep a hand up and don't let the Rebels take advantage of transition baskets. A few easy baskets can be enough to give this team the confidence it needs to roll. On the other side of the ball, Anthony Bennett has struggled on defense. Go at him and try and get him into early foul trouble.
6. How are UNLV fans feeling about their seeding and the bracket in general?
David Fucillo: UNLV is happy with the five seed, but obviously going to San Jose to face Cal does not sit well with Rebels fans. It makes for a relatively easy trip up from Las Vegas, but playing in the backyard of the lower seed is not exactly inspiring for the fanbase. That being said, fans know the team can win this one. As for the rest of the bracket? Syracuse would present quite the difficult challenge, but it would have the potential to set-up an interesting Sweet 16 matchup with Indiana. UNLV and Indiana last met in the NCAA tournament in 1987 when IU beat UNLV in the Final Four. I wouldn't quite call this a potential revenge matchup, but it's intriguing to say the least.
Mike Grimala: I think most Rebels fans were happy to receive a 5 seed, especially after a late-season slip-up against conference doormat Fresno State threatened to push them toward a 7 or even an 8 seed. But after a good showing in the Mountain West tournament, there is a general feeling of optimism about their chances in this bracket. Obviously there's confidence in the Cal matchup, having already won at Berkeley this season, and Syracuse isn't a particularly fearsome second-round opponent. So the local thinking is that UNLV could have a shot at the Sweet 16, while a first-round loss would mark the season as something of a failure.
7. What were your thoughts on the first Cal-UNLV? How relevant will any of that be in determining who will win the rematch 4 months later?
David Fucillo: The first game is tough to compare because of the changes to UNLV's lineup. Mike Moser played five minutes in that game, and Khem Birch was still ineligible following his transfer. Moser returned fairly quickly from his dislocated elbow, but it took him a solid month to get back into any kind of rhythm. Birch has quickly emerged as a defensive force. Bennett remains the primary offensive weapon, but a full game of Moser and the addition of Birch really changes a lot of the context from that game.
Mike Grimala: As much as UNLV fans may want to take comfort in the fact that the Rebels won the Dec. 9 meeting, I don't think it has much bearing at all on this game. Just look at all the fluke occurrences in that first contest - Mike Moser's elbow bending backward, some early foul trouble for Allen Crabbe, unusually poor free throw shooting from Cal, and a game-winning layup off of an air ball, just to name a few - so I think you can pretty much throw out the result.
I do think some things will carry over, however. UNLV dominated on the boards (36-26, 13-4 on the offensive glass), and the Rebels have only gotten better on the interior since then, adding starting center Khem Birch (ineligible for the first meeting) and getting Moser back from injury. So while the Rebels can't count on Cal to miss 13 free throws again, they can probably count on their big men winning the battle inside.
8. Is Bennett leaving this year?
David Fucillo: Anthony Bennett will almost assuredly be leaving after this season. He is projected as a lottery pick, and he has little to gain from staying another year. I have to imagine seeing Mike Moser injure his elbow against Cal makes that decision all the easier. Moser was projected as a second round pick last year, and a strong sophomore season would likely have moved him into first round range. Bennett is already projected in the lottery, and the potential for injury is reason enough to head to the NBA.
9. UNLV's recent NCAA history has been 1 and out (last 3 years, including last year's opening game loss to Pac-12's Colorado). UNLV also has not won the conference tournament in the last 4 years, is this team just not a good tournament team?
David Fucillo: They play inconsistent basketball, which in a 1-and-done environment can lead to all sorts of trouble. During the regular season, you just look at wins and losses as part of the ebb and flow. However, in the postseason, an inconsistent team's weaknesses quickly become apparent. UNLV can be incredibly streaky, which I think explains some of their struggles come tournament time. All I hope is that it is not a mental thing, particularly for a senior like Anthony Marshall who has been through the losses.
Mike Grimala: I don't think anyone knows what kind of tournament team UNLV will be. There's so little postseason experience on the roster (only one starter has played in an NCAA tourney - senior point guard Anthony Marshall) that it's impossible to predict how they'll respond to the win-or-go-home pressure. Their best player, freshman Anthony Bennett, was spectacular in the conference tournament (19.0 ppg, 64.7% FGs), so the hope is that he'll continue dominating and take some of the pressure off for the rest of the guys.
Besides Marshall and Bennett, the rest of the starters - freshman guard Katin Reinhardt, sophomore swingman Bryce Dejean-Jones and sophomore center Khem Birch - have struggled with offensive inconsistency all season. If they don't perform against Cal, it could very well be another one-and-done tournament for the Rebels.
10. Who do you want to punch in the face?
David Fucillo: The selection committee - They claimed this was the only legit option, but pardon me if I don't buy that. The rematch is odd enough, but then sticking Cal in their backyard as a 12 seed? I suppose it's hard to know anything for sure without being in the selection committee meeting room, but I still call BS.
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