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Rebels craving ‘big statement’ against Boise State

A group of UNLV players recently gathered to watch a Mountain West basketball game on TV, and something caught Khem Birch’s ear.

“It’s funny because I heard the announcers say that Boise State is the third-best team in the conference,” the junior forward said. “I kind of disagree. I think we can beat them on our home floor.”

Neither team expected to be battling for bragging rights to be No. 3 in the league, but that’s what the Rebels and Broncos are hoping for at this point. A conference title is a long shot for both teams, and the loser of today’s game essentially gets eliminated from that debate.

UNLV (14-7, 5-3) plays host to Boise State (15-6, 5-3) at 5:05 p.m. at the Thomas &Mack Center in a game that will break a fourth-place tie. The Rebels are 2-point favorites.

Approaching the halfway point in the league schedule, No. 5 San Diego State (7-0), New Mexico (7-1) and UNR (6-2) hold the top three spots in the standings.

“I think if we win (today), it’s a big statement,” Birch said. “Especially with the start we had, and all the ups and downs of the season, people don’t think we’re a tournament team or anything. People think we’re still a struggling team. I disagree.”

Still a long way from the NCAA Tournament bubble, UNLV’s postseason fate depends on the Mountain West tournament in March, and the Rebels are playing to attain the highest seed possible.

This is not a statement game, coach Dave Rice said in a roundabout way as he danced around that question.

“It’s still wide open. There’s still a lot of basketball left to be played,” Rice said. “There’s no doubt that Boise is one of the contenders for the conference title. We understand the challenge.”

The Broncos dropped road games to San Diego State and New Mexico, but the black eye on their resume is a home loss to Wyoming on Jan. 11. The Rebels lost early-January home games to Air Force and UNR.

“I think we’re both good teams, and we both hit tough stretches,” Rice said. “That’s the nature of an 18-game conference season, and every team is going to go through it.”

There was more preseason hype heaped on Boise State, mainly because it was the only team in the nation to reach the NCAA Tournament and return five starters. Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks formed the highest-scoring combo in the Mountain West a year ago, and the junior guards are averaging a combined 33.1 points this season.

Rice is more concerned with controlling Drmic, who scored 22 points in each of the teams’ two meetings last season. The 6-foot-6-inch Australian is shooting 34.8 percent from 3-point range and averaging 17.6 points and 4.9 rebounds.

“That’s not to slight Marks,” Rice said. “Drmic is just a do-it-all guy.”

The Broncos spread the floor with multiple 3-point snipers, and they rank first in the league in scoring (78.4 points) and free-throw percentage (.755). Sticking to perimeter shooters while also stopping dribble penetration is the defensive task facing the Rebels.

Drmic, Jeff Elorriaga and Nick Duncan are Boise State’s primary long-distance threats. Marks and Mikey Thompson, a 6-3 sophomore guard from Canyon Springs High School, are athletic slashers.

The Broncos connected on 13 of 25 3-pointers in their 68-64 loss to the Rebels last season at the Thomas &Mack. Elorriaga made five 3s, and Drmic and Thompson hit three apiece.

“It’s a huge challenge because of their ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter,” Rice said. “For as fast as they play and as wide open as they play. … the No. 1 key is getting their offensive transition slowed down.”

Ryan Watkins, a 6-9 senior forward, is Boise State’s only true low-post force. When Watkins is not on the floor, UNLV might have to counter with a small lineup. Either way, Birch and forward Roscoe Smith will be forced to defend shooters in space away from the basket.

“Don’t get me wrong, Watkins is very good,” Birch said, “but we’re focused on their guards more.”

With the Aztecs and Lobos scheduled to visit Las Vegas in the second half of the conference season, this is a chance for the Rebels to make a statement about being contenders down the stretch.

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.

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