UNLV lost for the first time this season in gut-wrenching fashion on Wednesday, dropping a winnable contest in overtime at Northern Iowa. It was the kind of defeat that can stick with a team long after leaving the arena, but the Rebels don’t have much time to mourn — not with Arizona in town for a West Coast showdown today (7 p.m., CBS Sports Network).
This was expected to be the Rebels’ marquee nonconference game, and although Arizona has stumbled, it may still prove to be the toughest on the slate.
The Wildcats’ struggles on and off the court have been well documented. The short version: One assistant coach has been bagged by the FBI’s investigation into illegal recruiting practices, another former assistant has also been embroiled, and there’s no telling when the hammer may fall on head coach Sean Miller. That turmoil has leaked onto the court, where the Cats opened the season ranked No. 3 in the nation but lost three straight contests to tumble out of the Top 25.
Now sporting a 4-3 record, Arizona is in the process of putting its season back together. The Wildcats trampled Long Beach State on Wednesday, and all of the talent that made them a Final Four pick is still in uniform. Junior guard Allonzo Trier is shooting the lights out and averaging 23.1 points per game, and freshman center DeAndre Ayton could potentially be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft.
It’s not hard to imagine Miller getting his team under control and leading them to contender status in the Pac-12. And that’s why this game could still prove to be important for the Rebels, who have a low strength-of-schedule rating and are looking for quality wins anywhere they can get them.
After a Friday practice, UNLV coach Marvin Menzies said his team has put the Northern Iowa loss behind them and is focusing completely on Arizona.
“You could tell by [Thursday’s] preparation,” Menzies said. “Even at our film session, our meeting, practice, they’re a little more in tune, a little more spirited. They know what’s ahead of them. You’re playing a storied program.”
“We’ve got a great opponent,” Menzies continued. “I don’t care what their record is. Arizona has some of the best talent in America on their team, so we’ve got to be ready to play.”
Trier is the offensive catalyst for Arizona, but it’s Ayton who presents the most difficult matchup. The 7-foot-1 big man is averaging 19.3 points and 11.6 rebounds per game while shooting 64.1 percent from the floor, and his highlight-reel dunks are ready made for draft night video packages.
Menzies spoke highly of the precocious Ayton.
“I don’t know the young man, but I hear good things about him,” Menzies said. “And as a player, I’ve coached a lot of years and he’s one of the better players that I’ll ever coach against, I think. He’s got the athleticism, the length and the attitude, it seems, to be a top pick, so obviously he can go.”
UNLV, of course, will deploy its own future one-and-done NBA draft pick at center, as Brandon McCoy (18.6 points, 12.1 rebounds) will likely be tasked with matching up with Ayton. The two are very familiar with each other, having come up through the ranks as part of the same AAU program, so their battle in the paint should be vigorous.
McCoy is also coming off his least productive game as a collegian — Northern Iowa frustrated him throughout and held him to nine points and seven rebounds in 30 minutes — so he should be motivated to put on a show in front of the pro scouts who will undoubtedly line the court at the Thomas & Mack Center.
If McCoy can play Ayton to a stalemate, the Rebels could have a chance to put this one in the win column, and that would be a huge boost after the disappointing result at Northern Iowa. Though the Rebels only dropped one spot in the KenPom.com ratings (from No. 95 to No. 96), they let a golden opportunity for a quality win slip away. That puts even more weight on the Arizona game — even with their early struggles, the Wildcats are still the highest-rated team UNLV will play this season (No. 16).
“There’s just a lot of plusses for us to have another opportunity,” Menzies said. “A road win was our first goal, and now a win against a team that’ll end up having a high RPI and a pretty good ranking at the end of the year. You get a few of those games in your nonconference schedule that you look at and go, ‘Man, this would be great to get this one.’ And this is one of them.”