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Preview: Cal MBB vs. UNLV

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Can the Bears move to 2-0 with a win over another west coast program trying to recover from tough times?

NCAA Basketball: South Dakota State at Nevada Ed Andersen-USA TODAY Sports

When: 8:00 Tuesday night
TV: Pac-12 Networks

Hey, remember the 2013 basketball season, when Cal lost to UNLV in a back-and-forth thriller early in the season, then earned a 12 seed and pulled off a mild upset in the rematch over the 5 seed Runnin’ Rebels in San Jose?

Well, that game represents Cal’s last NCAA tournament win and UNLV’s last NCAA tournament appearance. Since then, things have been mostly not great for both programs. We all know quite well what’s happened at Cal since. Down in Vegas, Dave Rice oversaw a slow decline from the Lon Kruger era, and when Marvin Menzies left New Mexico State to take over in 2017 he inherited a shell of a program with 3 scholarship players on the roster. After a rock bottom season, he built the Rebels back towards mid-tier MWC respectability but nowhere near the NCAA tournament, then got fired at the end of the 2019 season after three years in charge.

UNLV hired T.J. Otzelberger from South Dakota State, fresh off two NCAA tournament appearances and two Summit League titles in 3 years, and he faces a tough challenge, because expectations at UNLV might be a bit beyond what the program is capable of producing, at least in the short term.

Roster

Starters

PG Amauri Hardy, Jr.
G Elijah Mitrou-Long, Sr.
G Bryce Hamilton, So.
F Donnie Tillman, Jr.
F Cheikh Mbacke Diong, Jr.

Bench

F Nick Blair, Sr.
G Bryce Hamilton, So.
F Cheickna Dembele, Jr.

As you might expect for a program under a new coach, there’s been plenty of roster movement. UNLV returns only two players who played more than half of available minutes (Hardy & Diong), along with a few other younger players who saw time off the bench last year and still come off the bench this year (Hamilton, Blair, Dembele).

Just about everybody else on the roster is a transfer player, and there are still unresolved eligibility issues for some of them. You might recognize Donnie Tillman, an active wing who had a pretty excellent season for an otherwise disappointing 2019 Utah squad. Elijah Mitrou-Long came to Vegas by way of Texas by way of Mount St. Mary’s, which is also where Jonah Antonio transferred from. Everything I’ve read also indicates that ASU transfer Vitaliy Shibel is eligible, and it’s not entirely clear to me why he didn’t play in any of UNLV’s first two games.

So: UNLV has basically played a 7 man rotation, and has leaned heavily on Hardy and Diong because they don’t really have a backup center or point guard on the roster that Otzelberger trusts. Meanwhile, five guys split up the minutes at the wing.

Hardy is the clear go-to guy, an all-around player who will shoot, drive, and dish in equal measure. He’s been an iffy shooter for most of his career and has been turnover prone to start the season as he adapts to a more on-ball role, so Cal will probably hope to do to him what they did to Pepperdine’s Colbey Ross in the 2nd half of the season opener.

Diong is the classic low-usage, high efficiency center who does all of the defensive things you want him to do. One area to watch - he was a very foul prone player in his first two seasons, but has been avoiding fouls so far this year, perhaps because he knows he has to stay on the court for his team. How tough is he able to play inside?

Keys to the game

Defending Hardy at the point of attack

UNLV’s best and highest usage player will have the ball in his hands a lot, looking to find space to drive, space to shoot, space to set up his teammates. Most of the action UNLV runs will involve him, and how Cal handles his movement will be a big part of deciding the result of the game.

Can Cal stay hot from 3?

Otzelberger historically plays a defensive style that allows lots of 3 point looks, and he also happens to have an intimidating interior defender in Diong that would discourage post offense and drive finishing. It thus would make sense that Cal should attempt lots of 3s tonight. It’s obviously not realistic to expect Cal to shoot better than 50% like they did in Game 1, but if the Bears take advantage of the looks that will probably come, a 40% night at a reasonable volume would go a long way.

Who’s going to keep Diong and the rest of the Rebels off the glass?

UNLV’s center pulled down 6 offensive boards by himself in each of UNLV’s first two games, and the entire team rebounded nearly half of their own misses against K State. Diong in particular has the size (6’11’) and wingspan to make him a tough challenge for Cal’s posts. Andre Kelly looked much more spry in the first game of his sophomore season, but can he hold up giving up 3 inches and probably more in wingspan to Diong? And Can Grant Anticevich keep coming up with scrappy boards?

Our Computer Overlords Predict

Kenpom sez: Cal 71, UNLV 67, 63% chance of Cal victory

Our overlords see Cal and UNLV as virtually even, with the margin coming thanks to Cal’s home court advantage. I think there’s reason to have a ton of uncertainty about this particular game. Consider that both teams feature new head coaches with vastly turned over rosters of players trying to learn to play together. Additionally, both teams have looked better out of the gate than expected - Cal cruising in a game they were favored to lose, and UNLV taking a good Kansas St. team to overtime.

So be prepared for anything. Be prepared for a Fox defense to shut down a limited UNLV roster. Be prepared for Cal to struggle to finish over a tough interior defender. Be prepared for a 10 point UNLV win or an 8 point Cal win or a back and forth white knuckle thrill ride. I really don’t know. Sorry!

What this game will provide is another Mark Fox data point. UNLV is another team from the 100-150 national range who will provide a good barometer of improvement, and if Cal wins that’s another solid sign that the current group has shaken off the malaise of the last two seasons. Whether by design or by luck, Cal has a perfect schedule for testing how far this team has come without (hopefully) overwhelming them.