Mountain West tests UNLV’s versatility


An accepted premise: The toughest thing about competing in the Mountain West for basketball is the travel.

The climate change. The elevation. The time zones. The logistics.

The intangibles.

Translation: Departing an arena in Laramie, Wyo., after midnight, climbing aboard your team bus and staring into a blinding snowstorm.

The second toughest thing: Preparing for such a variety of offenses.

You have to deal with size against New Mexico and length against San Diego State and more cuts than a butcher makes in an eight-hour shift against Air Force.

You have to chase Utah State shooters and contain Fresno State’s scorers and hope that on the night your team opposes him, UNR senior guard Deonte Burton resembles more Development League castoff than NBA starter.

You have to pray Boise State’s efficiency is a smidgen or two off when its shooters begin firing from long range.

“Preparation is extremely different from game to game,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “Defending a Boise State is a scary deal. They make you pay for (defensive) mistakes as much as anyone in our league.”

The Rebels will try to limit such miscues against the Broncos today at the Thomas &Mack Center, where a 5 p.m. tipoff will offer a stark contrast to what statistics suggest both teams do best.

Boise State scores like no other in the Mountain West, averaging almost 79 points while shooting 38 percent on 3-pointers and a league-best 76 percent from the free-throw line. The Broncos also are incredibly difficult to score against in transition because so many of their perimeter players get back quickly.

When he really wants to mess with others, coach Leon Rice will go ultra-small and put five players on the floor capable of knocking down 3s as well as the next guy.

The Broncos would be a No. 1 seed in any 68-team bracket of H-O-R-S-E.

UNLV doesn’t score like Boise State, certainly doesn’t shoot like Boise State and probably last led a conference in free-throw percentage when home games were played at the Dula Memorial Gymnasium off Bonanza Road.

But the Rebels have proven they can stop people.

They rank third among conference teams in scoring defense, second in field-goal percentage defense and first in 3-point percentage defense and blocks. They can gamble when contesting shooters because they know junior Khem Birch (3.7 bpg) is protecting the rim.

They have — save losses against UC Santa Barbara and Air Force and a home escape against Fresno State — done a terrific job limiting shooters. The biggest test comes today.

If the Rebels can attach themselves to Boise State guards and wings as well as they did in holding Utah State to 42 points and 2-for-17 on 3s less than two weeks ago, UNLV has every chance to win its fourth straight game. Utah State runs more set plays than Boise State, but the motion and continuity of the Broncos can drive opposing defenders wacky.

“The hardest part about playing Boise State is matching up with their shooters in transition, finding all of them,” Dave Rice said. “It will be a huge challenge for us. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that San Diego State and us are the nation’s two best teams at limiting 3-pointers. San Diego State is very, very long, and we have some length. We both have shot blockers. That gives guys confidence to get out there and contest shooters.”

UNLV has quietly won 11 of its past 14 games, an impressive stretch not given substantial credit because two of the losses came at home against teams (Air Force and UNR) the Rebels were heavily favored to beat.

But it’s also true the season’s only road losses have come against teams (Arizona and San Diego State) ranked in the top five nationally.

What might be a good thing for UNLV: Beginning today, the schedule doesn’t offer any more back-to-back road or home games, meaning the Rebels will alternate between here and away until the conference tournament.

“Absolutely, every game is very important the rest of the way,” Dave Rice said. “We’ve made a lot of progress over these last 14 games. We’ve improved in a lot of areas. We are getting better as the season goes on.

“It says something when your only two road losses are to teams like (Arizona and San Diego State). Now, we just need to figure out how to be as consistent at home as we have been away from it.”

It’s offense against defense today, shooters against those contesting, rippling the nets against protecting the rim.

Two completely different ways to seek victory.

In other words, just another outing in the Mountain West.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.