Washington State Men’s Basketball had a much needed “get right” win against Northern Kentucky at home on Wednesday, but now they face their biggest challenge of the season thus far. University of Nevada Las Vegas is undefeated through their first nine games, and the Cougs will have to contend with their elite defense in Sin City.
The game will tipoff from the Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas at 1:30 PM PST and can be watched on Fox Sports 1.
UNLV Runnin’ Rebels
UNLV has a more than serviceable offense, and it’s helped them to their impressive 7-0 start. They rank 155th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, which is about average, but they have games where they exceed that thanks to their explosive pace. They rank 31st in average possession length and it is entirely because of their willingness to run and hustle in transition. They are not particularly efficient- ranking 234th in two-point percentage and 172nd in three-point percentage. However, they get a lot of attempts by creating turnovers on defense or getting on the offensive boards- 121st in offensive rebound rate. They are also elite at getting to the line thanks to their energetic drivers- ranking 28th in free throw rate. They manage to be a good offense without being outstanding shot-makers thanks to their athleticism and effort.
In the simplest words, UNLV’s offense is all about getting downhill and making plays from there. They generate a lot of their offense out of simple isolations or dribble-drives. From there, they can get to the line, make plays for cutters, or spray passes out for three.
Despite not being an superb shooting team, UNLV has no issues getting shots up. They are not a super high frequency shooting team- 151st in three-point attempt rate- but they will take what the defense will give them off of their drives and trust they can get on the boards as well.
The Rebels run a good amount of pick-and-roll, especially in the middle of the floor. As much as their defense is about taking away the middle, their offense is about getting middle and making plays from there.
UNLV loves to set-up their sets with weaves and blur (ghost) screens. They love to slip out of screens to beat hard hedges. They like to get defenses moving and rotating before attacking in attempt to confuse where the help might be coming from.
UNLV uses this weave to set-up most of their half-court sets. The benefit of playing those three or four guards at a time is that almost anyone can run the primary action. They love to use these handoffs to get their players downhill and force aggressive help, with the weave forcing defenders to make quick decisions.
Their transition play is distinctive, and they will push the pace whenever possible. They run off defensive rebounds, steals, or even made baskets if the defense isn’t set. WSU will have to constantly be diligent getting back on defense at all times.
Finally, UNLV is first-rate at getting on the boards and getting to the line. They are going to put a lot of pressure on Mouhamed Gueye to stay out of foul trouble, but still be aggressive rebounding and protecting the rim.
The Rebels are an incredible defensive squad, and there’s a chance that they’re the best defense WSU will face all season. UNLV is 32nd in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency and they are admirable at just about everything. They are 2nd in the country in opponent turnover rate and they do this without an insane amount of over-gambling. Their defensive principles lead to a lot of turnovers, and they look to push in transition whenever possible. They are also excellent at not fouling- ranking 35th in opponent free throw rate- and at protecting the rim -90th in opponent two-point percentage. Their two major weaknesses are that they are poor on the boards and they give up a lot of threes. They rank 215th in defensive rebound rate, and the Cougs should be able to use their size to hit the boards hard. The Rebels are 362nd (second to last) in opponent three-point attempt rate. This has not bit them yet, as opponents are only shooting 32.1% against them, but they give up a ton of open looks and that could be exploited easily.
UNLV runs a version of what is commonly referred to as the “No Middle” defense. The basic tenant of No Middle is right there in the name: force the ball-handler towards the sideline and keep them away from the rim. No Middle teams tend to be switchable, aggressive in help, and they force a lot of turnovers. The No Middle has been incredibly successful in college basketball, with teams like Baylor, Texas, and Texas Tech adopting it to great acclaim.
No Middle rotations and responsibilities are incredibly complex and impossible to explain in one paragraph, so I recommend reading this in-depth article if you have time and want to learn more.
This is a little taste of what UNLV’s No Middle looks like. The guards angle themselves to force drivers to the sideline, they will switch and ice to prevent guards from getting middle, and the help defense is incredibly aggressive.
A major factor in the No Middle defense is that they ice ball-screens. Icing screens involve the guard forcing the ball-handler to the sideline- usually preventing them from using the screen- and the big catching deep. Ices often lead to switches, but not the usual aggressive switches that come from a true switch everything scheme.
When UNLV cannot get to an ice, or if a big is not involved in the screening action, then they will switch those ball-screens.
No Middle help responsibilities require the first help defender to meet baseline drivers outside the lane. The other defenders on the weakside will then tag any rollers, cutters, or bigs in the dunker spot and attempt to force a skip pass over the top.
The help meeting drivers and posts so far outside the lane leads to a lot of doubles on the baseline. These traps can cause a lot of turnovers because the ball gets trapped where a shot is near impossible, and the off-ball defenders can roam to jump passes.
Not all of UNLV’s steals are just created by the system though! Their guards have a nose for the ball and they are aggressive when getting into ball-handlers and jumping passes all over the floor.
The two ways to beat No Middle are mostly unsurprising. The first is to simply get middle. Whether it be with drives or post-ups or off-ball screens, getting the ball into the middle of the floor opens up more options to create plays. The other way is with good ball-movement. This can come off of getting middle, but good ball-movement can beat a No Middle even from the sideline drives. Because there is no set match-up and teams are so switchy and aggressive, there are soft spots around the perimeter that can lead to open jumpers.
Players to Watch:
Keshon Gilbert is the Rebels’ best player and he does it all from the guard spot. He is the tip of the spear on defense, their best ball-handler, an great passer, and a great finisher around the rim. He’s started to find his way onto NBA radars, and he can pick teams apart on both ends.
Elijah Parquet, a former Colorado Buffalo, is one of the scariest defensive guards in the country. He is a terror on defense and he hounds opposing guards with ease. Offensively, he is not much of a threat, but he makes good decisions and can hit the occasional shot.
Luis Rodriguez is another notable defender on this roster. The 6’6 wing often starts at the 4 and he brings a ton of energy to the game. His isolation scoring is impressive, whether it be in the post or on the perimeter. He is a streaky shooter, but he can get hot from deep. He is an effective contributor to this team on both ends.
Washington State Cougars
Players to Watch
Mouhamed Gueye has looked the part of a top 5 or 6 player in the Pac-12 over the past couple games. He has scored efficiently in the post, played well as the roll-man, made plays for others, and been top-notch defensively. UNLV presents both a unique opportunity and a challenge. He will be the biggest player on the floor, but UNLV will also throw a lot of traps and doubles his way, trying to force him to turn it over. He will need to avoid those turnovers, score efficiently, and be his usual exemplary self on defense.
DJ Rodman has always had a problem with consistency. Not consistency as a defender, rebounder, or effort player, but consistency with his jumper and offensive decision-making. WSU will need Rodman to have a game where he is hitting open threes, because the Rebels will give him those shots. His defense will be huge too, as UNLV can get buckets from anywhere and the defensive rotations will need to be on point.
Justin Powell has become fascinating to watch. He is an premium bum-slayer, murdering the mid-major competition en route to incredibly efficient games and bug wins for the Cougs. However, it feels like he has struggled a bit when playing the higher-level competition. A big reason for that has been the compromised spacing, but it also shows up with him not getting by guys consistently and not trusting himself against better defenders. UNLV will constantly be throwing excellent defenders at Powell, and he will need to be comfortable taking tougher shots and forcing himself to be the lead creator for this team.
What to Watch For:
Ball-Movement is going to be huge for WSU in this game. No Middle defenses have a lot of specific, set defensive reads and the easiest way to beat is to anticipate the next rotation and outplay it with a quick pass. Wazzu has had plenty of issues creating the initial advantage, but when they do get it, they will need to capitalize by moving the ball to get good shots.
Slowing UNLV down will be a major focus for us in this game. UNLV plays at a breakneck pace, forcing turnovers and looking to immediately convert on the other end. They are skillful at pushing the ball, and they have the green light to pull open shots. UNLV can simply bludgeon teams if they get going enough and WSU will have to contain them if they want to avoid a blowout.
Question of the Game:
Will the Cougs hold UNLV below .95 points per possession?