Rebels back on the road, where rival Aztecs are ready and waiting

UNLV’s game at No. 15 San Diego State will feature the league’s frontrunners for POY: Anthony Bennett and Jamaal Franklin

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

San Diego State guard Jamaal Franklin celebrates his three-point shot against Colorado State during their Mountain West Conference tournament semifinal game Friday, March 9, 2012 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

It’s very possible the eventual regular season Mountain West champ will not be in Viejas Arena on Wednesday night when UNLV (14-3, 1-1) plays at No. 15 San Diego State (14-2, 2-0). But for the two teams that have done battle in the public conscious for the entire offseason and probably garnered more headlines than the rest of the league combined, it may feel like that’s what’s at stake when they tip off at 7:15 p.m. on CBS Sports Network.

Luckily for the Rebels, it’s too early to declare anything and there’s still time to try to solve the road issues that have led to a 2-6 record under coach Dave Rice against conference opponents away from the Thomas & Mack Center. And while going to Viejas to face an Aztecs team that’s undefeated indoors in the continental United States may not be the ideal situation to find answers, the Rebels have no choice. That’s what’s up next.

“We know this will be our greatest challenge to date,” Rice said.

There are a lot of similarities between the Rebels and Aztecs. For starters just look at the most recent games: a pair of home overtime victories that featured star players (UNLV’s Anthony Bennett and SDSU’s Chase Tapley) overcoming illness for stellar performances.

The Aztecs will get more of a pass for needing the extra session because their opponent, Colorado State, which hosts UNLV on Saturday, was better than UNLV’s, Air Force. That will hardly matter when the Rebels travel to San Diego, though. One game doesn’t predict the next in this league.

“It’s going to be a battle in the Mountain West, and you’ve got to just take each game one by one,” UNLV senior Anthony Marshall said.

More similarities between the teams: According to kenpom.com, both rank similarly in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, as well as effective field-goal percentage defense, in which they rank 16th (SDSU) and 17th (UNLV) in the country. The main statistical advantages for either team go to the Aztecs, who are much better at keeping their opponents off the free-throw line and not allowing steals.

Of course, looking only at the numbers ignores the larger picture, which includes Bennett. While clearly less than 100 percent against Air Force, Bennett still finished with 22 points and 16 rebounds.

“You’ve got to deal with him while you’re worrying about the rest of them,” said SDSU coach Steve Fisher, who didn’t say how he planned to guard Bennett.

Fisher’s scheme will almost assuredly include some double teams, most likely on the catch in the post. The Aztecs could also try to front Bennett, though that leaves a defense vulnerable over the top.

The paint seems to be the only place SDSU lags behind the conference’s other top contenders, which all have a dominant big man — Bennett, Colorado State’s Colton Iverson, New Mexico’s Alex Kirk and Wyoming’s Leonard Washington. What the Aztecs have that no one else does, though, is junior Jamaal Franklin, who was a trending topic on Twitter last Wednesday because of a dunk against Fresno State that saw Franklin throw an alley-oop to himself from behind the three-point line.

“Wow,” UNLV junior Mike Moser said. “That’s it. One word: wow.”

Franklin isn’t a particularly efficient scorer, but he’ll do damage by the time the game is done, and as a 6-foot-5 wing player, Franklin leads the team with 10.3 rebounds per game. Moser said the only way to do anything about that is to box out, which sounds simple until you consider that’s what everyone else has tried to do, too.

Depending on what the decision-makers at San Diego State and the Mountain West do in the next few weeks, this could be one of the last chapters in a suddenly great rivalry or, more likely, just the most recent challenge in a series that has a bright future. It’s already the continuation of long-standing rivalries for West Coast guys such as Marshall and Justin Hawkins.

“We grew up playing with and against them,” Marshall said of the Aztecs. “We’re like brothers off the court, but on the court, we hate each other.”

This has been a marquee matchup and appointment viewing for months. As the game approaches, the onus is on the Rebels to hold up their end, get tough on the road and grab the first notable victory of their season.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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  1. This will be a much harder game to win than against UNM at the Pit. SDSU is much more talented than the Lobos and have alot of experience and grit. Given the lack of toughness and decision making the Rebs have shown in road games so far this year, it would be a major surprise if they can knock the Aztecs off.

  2. Seat Williams on ESPN Radio 98.9 FM said that the Rebels will unveil a new wrinkle tonight. I'm ready to see what it is.

    As far as the outcome goes, I wouldn't be surprised either way. It will come down to UNLV's frontcourt vs. San Diego State's backcourt.

  3. UNLV has the clear advantage in the frontcourt with Bennett, Birch, Moser, Lopez, Thomas compared to SDSU front line of O'brien, Stephens, Spencer, and Polee. But at the same time SDSU has the clear advantage in the backcourt with Franklin, Tapley, Thames, Rahon compared to the Rebel backcourt of Marshall, Reinhardt, Dejean-Jones, Hawkins. The key for the Rebels will be if their backcourt steps up and can play even with the Aztecs backcourt. The key for SDSU will be if their frontcourt can play even with UNLV's.

    I think its going to be a close game and it will come down to the wire. Unfortunately for the Rebels, they struggle in the final few minutes of close games. I'm hoping for the best, but I don't have a good feeling about this one! SDSU 68 UNLV 61

  4. I would really like to see Marshall, BDJ, Moser, AB, and Birch start tonight. I don't care about a logjam at the 2 spot. I'd put Moser on Tapley and let BDJ get under Franklin's skin. That would be a fun battle to watch. Let Reinhardt come in for Marshall instead of at the 2. It's pretty clear that Cook isn't going to get many seconds in close conference games. Hawkins can come in at the 2, Lopez and QT at 4/5, and Goodman at the 3.
    Go get em Rebs!

  5. Hopefully the new wrinkle will be making free throws and a more intelligent shot selection. I understand that shooters shoot, but we don't need shots that would rival the old Jordan - Bird McDonald's commercials. Our version of that has been "Double covered, hand in the face, lean right and launch from 2 feet behind the three point arc" or "OMG we're down to 30 seconds on the let's launch the first contested three we see".

    I love the potential of our team, but really, really wish we had a true point guard.

    GO REBS!!

  6. These two teams traded two-point wins at home last year. Gonna be tough, so go Rebels!

  7. Front court only matters if they get the ball down low. I am afraid it will be more of the same with Bennett and Moser launching threes. This team does not play with very much intelligence which is why it loses to good teams on a regular basis.

  8. There is no "rivalry" between a hammer and a nail, and we've been the nail for years...

  9. Good point Runthistown. I do believe that Coach Rice has at least put us in position with his recruiting to not be outmanned with athleticism this go around. Coach Kruger's teams never had the length and athleticism to combat SDSU and it always seemed to get us. In my opinion we are now as athletic if not more and deeper than the Aztecs. Unfortunately SDSU always seems to be able to put us in a half court scenario where we have to execute and that is a big problem. Probably another game in the 60's!

  10. If the Rebels win this game, the people will jump back on the bandwagon telling us how the Rebels are the best team in the conference.

    If they lose they will have to face the resident trolls on here.......

    I see a good match up and think the Rebels win it 71-69.

  11. Time is starting to run out on Rice. It's about time he starts getting all that talent to play together as a team and start playing smarter basketball and harder defense.

    We are half way through the season and with all our players available we should start to see this team improving. A win tonight will calm all the skeptics. As of now though it's beginning to look like it's Rice's inexperience that is the hurdle we have to get over, not the player's inexperience.

  12. yawn, poor UNLV, perhaps someday UNLV high school will get bumped down to a Div III school where then maybe they will have a chance at winning some games and not looking like fools...

  13. If the Rebels pound it down low on a regular basis, they will win. If they play like normal- and jack up 3's from all over the place- they will get their butts kicked. A half court game- in this instance- should FAVOR the Rebels...

  14. Now that the Rebe;s have their full arsenal, lets see if they can establish an identity. Also, it would be nice to see about 50 minutes from the bench tonight. The rotation was too small against Air Force, especially considering Bennett and Moser weren't 100%.

  15. I laugh at that UNLV high school comment...

  16. Gut check, UNLV pulls it off, clearly the better team tonight. GO REBELS!

  17. Comment removed by moderator. ALL CAPS

  18. Seriously, moderator? All caps? Really?

    Instead of "HECK. YEAH." Should I have typed instead "hECK. YEAH.? Or maybe "hecK YeAh." I mean I want to be sure that I express my enthusiasm for my hometeam wining a very important road game in a way that pleases the moderators.

    PlEaSe AdViSe.

  19. Dan,

    I'm sorry your comment was removed, but our policy is very clear; by using our site you "agree not to post in all caps."

    Please see our full Reader Agreement if you have any questions: http://www.lasvegassun.com/about/useragr...

    Thank you for participating in our discussion boards.

  20. Kyle,

    I have read the Reader Agreement in full and now understand that if I ever feel the urge to post a comment consisting of, for instance, "GO UNLV!" that I must *only* type it as "Go UNLV!" (since lowercase "unlv" is incorrect usage) otherwise I risk having my comments removed or being banned from posting.

    Got it. Won't happen again.