Analysis: Rebels still adapting to Mountain West play

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Steve Marcus

UNLV’s Jovan Mooring is shown against Rice at the MGM Resorts Main Event tournament at T-Mobile, Monday, Nov. 20, 2017.

Fri, Jan 26, 2018 (2 a.m.)

The Mountain West isn't a great basketball league, but it is a peculiar one.

It's a conference made up of 11 teams that feature disparate styles of play, and the league is evolving at a fast rate. Just a few years ago, it was known as a slow-down, pound-it-out conference that tested players' (and fans') patience with ugly, physical games. Now, it's a run-and-gun league embracing the new era of pace and space.

Contenders like UNR, Boise State and Wyoming all launch 3-pointers as their primary method of scoring, and Fresno State is among the top 15 in the nation in 3-point accuracy. And that's just the top half of the league. Even bottom-half teams like Utah State, New Mexico and Air Force live and die by the 3.

So where does that leave UNLV in the middle of its second year under head coach Marvin Menzies?

Adapting to the nontraditional style of the Mountain West has proven to be a work in progress for the Rebels. After breezing through the nonconference schedule with an 11-2 record, UNLV has found that defending the wacky Mountain West is more challenging that it looks.

There are several reasons why UNLV is 3-4 in the Mountain West:

Frontcourt fit

UNLV dominated the nonconference schedule behind its power frontcourt of freshman Brandon McCoy and junior Shakur Juiston. Neither has range past 12 feet, but they didn't need it, as they overwhelmed opponents with sheer size and scoring touch around the basket.

That hasn't worked against Mountain West teams. After averaging 19.0 points per game in nonconference play, McCoy has dropped to 14.4 points against MWC competition. Juiston has dropped from 15.2 points to 12.9 points. Opponents have scouted them better, double-teamed more, and otherwise forced them out of their comfort zones.

Mountain West teams have also been able to attack McCoy and Juiston defensively by spreading the floor and forcing them to guard out in space. Both are traditional post players, and defending on the perimeter is not a strength. That has made it easier for smaller, quicker MWC teams to beat UNLV off the dribble and score easy baskets.

In nonconference play, UNLV held opponents to 43.6 percent shooting on 2-point attempts. In seven league games, that has skyrocketed to 50.3 percent, in large part because McCoy and Juiston are playing further from the basket and not able to contest as many shots around the rim.

Menzies has countered by giving more playing time to freshman forwards Mbacke Diong and Tervell Beck in recent games, and their mobility has helped. But McCoy and Juiston are the stars, and UNLV needs them to produce at a high level in order to contend in the Mountain West.

Long-range shooting

One of Menzies' biggest defensive priorities is to not get beat from the 3-point line, and the Rebels game-plan accordingly. But smaller Mountain West opponents have found cracks in the defense, and they're exploiting it.

In nonconference play, UNLV held opponents to 29.2 percent from behind the 3-point line. In MWC play, that has risen to 36.3 percent.

That's an alarming increase, and it can be traced to the league's overall style of play. Attempts haven't gone up — nonleague opponents attempted 19.1 long-distance shots per game, while conference foes are taking 19.2 — but the accuracy has jumped significantly. Teams like Utah State, New Mexico and Boise State can flood the court with four 3-point shooters and cash in on open looks.

UNLV, on the other hand, hasn't taken advantage of the 3-point line. With an offense centered on working the ball inside to McCoy and Juiston, the Rebels have attempted just 125 shots from beyond the arc in league play, which ranks 11th out of 11 teams. UNLV has made just 39 3-pointers while its conference opponents have made 49.

And those numbers are only bound to get worse, considering the Rebels haven't played UNR yet. The Wolf Pack attempt 23.4 3-pointers per game and make 40.6 percent of them, ranking them 15th in the nation in accuracy. Two games against UNR will likely skew UNLV's 3-point splits even further.

That's why it's important for the Rebels to make the 3's they do attempt, starting with Jovan Mooring. It's no coincidence that when he shoots well, the Rebels generally win. There aren't any other volume 3-point shooters on the roster, so it's up to Mooring to provide nine to 12 points from beyond the arc every game to keep UNLV close.

Through seven conference games, Mooring is shooting 30.2 percent on 6.1 attempts per game. He's got to make a higher percentage, while point guard Jordan Johnson (40.6 percent on 4.6 attempts per game) has to shoot more.

Tempo troubles

Menzies wants to play a fast, entertaining style, and that worked to perfection in the first half of the season. Through 13 nonleague games, UNLV was averaging 80 possessions per game, which was the ninth-fastest pace in the nation.

Since Mountain West play began, however, the Rebels have been slowed to 72.3 possessions per game. That's meant fewer fast-break opportunities, fewer transition 3's, and fewer post touches for McCoy and Juiston.

Defense is the main culprit. With opponents shooting such a high percentage against UNLV, there just aren't as many clean defensive rebounds turning into transition offense. And with two big men on the court, the Rebels don't apply much pressure on the perimeter, which means fewer turnovers. UNLV is forcing just 12.1 turnovers per game in conference play, which makes it hard to get out in the open court for fast, easy baskets.

Those are just a few of the challenges UNLV will have to solve over the final 11 Mountain West games, starting on Saturday against San Diego State (7 p.m., CBS Sports Network). None seems impossible to overcome for a team as talented as UNLV, and if the Rebels can sort out their stylistic issues, the team is capable of matching up with the rest of the league much better down the stretch.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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