UNLV has once again looked like one of the Mountain West's best teams over the past couple of weeks, picking up wins over conference contenders UNR and Wyoming while making a statement in an overtime loss at Boise State. The Rebels now find themselves in third place in the league standings, and the common factor in the team's sudden resurgence has been its three-guard lineup.
The Rebels (18-7, 7-5 MWC) went into training camp with four starters locked in: Jordan Johnson at point guard, Jovan Mooring at shooting guard, Shakur Juiston at power forward and Brandon McCoy at center, and they have started all 25 games. The fifth spot has been a developing situation, however, with junior Kris Clyburn (20 starts) and freshman Tervell Beck (five starts) both manning the role at different points in the season.
Clyburn and Beck both have the desired measurable for the small forward position, checking in at 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-7, respectively, but recently the Rebels have found success by going small at that spot in the lineup with 6-foot-2 freshman point guard Amauri Hardy.
Hardy has yet to start a game this season, but when he plays with the rest of the starting lineup, UNLV has looked unbeatable. Over the past six games, the lineup of Johnson, Mooring, Hardy, Juiston and McCoy has played 34 minutes together, and during that time they've outscored opponents, 103-54.
The offense has been operating at peak efficiency with Hardy providing an extra ball-handler/penetrator on the wing. In the last six games, that lineup has made 36-of-47 from the field (76.6) and scored at a rate that would project to 120.6 points per 40 minutes.
The Johnson-Mooring-Hardy configuration has been productive in just about every situation over the last month, but the three-guard look has been especially effective when paired with Juiston and McCoy.
Head coach Marvin Menzies said that the three guards bring versatility that make it difficult for defenses to match up.
"That's one of the reasons they'll play together at times," Menzies said. "I think if you've got three guys that can shoot it, bounce it, make plays for others, it's always tough when you have those two big boys inside doing what they're supposed to do in cleaning up the boards and protecting the rim and so forth."
Against Boise, the three guards played with Juiston and McCoy for 5:50 and outscored the Broncos, 23-10, while shooting 7-of-9 from the field. In 9:33 at Reno, the Rebels outscored UNR, 25-16, while shooting 9-of-13. Against Wyoming, it was 11:02 of floor time and a decisive 32-17 margin, with 11-of-20 shooting.
When UNLV edged out Air Force, 81-76, in Colorado Springs on Jan. 10, the Rebels hadn't yet figured out how to best deploy their three playmaking guards. In that game, Johnson, Mooring and Hardy played 6:27 together, but none of that came with Juiston and McCoy on the floor. Still, they outscored Air Force, 13-9.
Expect the Rebels' best lineup to get more run this time around, when UNLV hosts Air Force on Wednesday (7 p.m., AT&T SportsNet).
Menzies' only concern with the three-guard look seems to be on the defensive end.
"You just want to make sure you have productivity from the defensive side of the ball first," he said. "Obviously, you're a little bit smaller with those guys, so now you may have some matchup implications that the other team can take advantage of. So you're looking for toughness, you're looking for communication and you're looking for team connectivity on defense."
It hasn't been an issue so far. Over the last six games, the Johnson-Mooring-Hardy-Juiston-McCoy lineup has held opponents to 20-of-60 from the field (33.3 percent) while forcing 10 turnovers.
That lineup has seen its minutes increase in four straight games. If they continue to dominate, expect Menzies to continue riding them through the end of the season.