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Aztecs get better of Rebels on sideline

They began filing out of the Thomas & Mack Center with 4:21 remaining, apparently having seen enough of the clinic San Diego State’s basketball team gave to UNLV on Saturday night.

Much of the announced gathering of 15,243 either couldn’t bear to watch all of what would be a 67-52 victory for the Aztecs or were afraid the Rebels might actually appear competent in a half-court set and would have to remain in their seats and offer a pity clap.

I don’t know where Steve Fisher spends his time before games, but there is a chance the San Diego State coach visited UNLV’s locker room and drew on a board exactly how he would prefer the Rebels play against his team’s defense.

It’s as if the Rebels shrugged and said, “Sure thing.”

UNLV has looked good at times since Todd Simon became interim coach in the wake of Dave Rice’s firing. It has won four games under Simon, and in them dictated tempo and made shots and was the defense-to-offense transition machine many had hoped for in recent years.

Even the two-point loss at UNR had as much to do with UNLV missing 14 free throws and allowing 16 offensive rebounds as it did a few obvious coaching mishaps down the stretch, which there were on the offensive side of things.

But not Saturday.

Not close.

For the first time since Rice’s dismissal, Simon and his staff were thoroughly outcoached to the point you wonder which assistant had lead scouting duties and how in the world UNLV actually prepared for the first-place Aztecs.

It was that much of a mismatch between benches.

“San Diego State has been a championship-caliber team in our league for a number of years,” Simon said. “They’re a phenomenal defensive team, no question. We passed up a number of good first looks, and we emphasized all week that against this team, you have to take the first good look. We looked almost hesitant at times.”

Try much of the time.

Here is how you don’t beat San Diego State: You allow the Aztecs to make it a half-court game, you play timid, you settle for 3-pointers, you have soft cuts, you allow them to dictate your action off ball screens, you become frustrated and pack things in emotionally and effort-wise with five minutes left and your team down 10.

You give in and, eventually, give up.

All of which UNLV did.

“We took their heart out once we got up eight to 10 (points) and just kept grinding away,” San Diego State junior guard Dakarai Allen said. “I could tell.”

It didn’t help UNLV to lose Ben Carter with an injured knee nine minutes into the game, and anyone who knows the sort of kid and leader the junior forward is hopes it’s not a serious setback, but the Rebels also weren’t winning with him.

They were outrebounded 44-27 and again weren’t in the same stratosphere as San Diego State when it comes to mental toughness and physicality.

This is no coincidence: San Diego State is 7-0 against UNLV since Justin Hutson left Rice’s staff and returned to the Aztecs’ bench under Fisher. Hutson runs San Diego State’s nationally ranked defense, and Saturday’s effort by the Aztecs on that end was again stellar.

But the Rebels also never adjusted, never appeared to understand how best to attack San Diego State, which is amazing given it’s pretty much the same way the Aztecs have defended UNLV in all seven of those wins.

The Aztecs won again because they aggressively defended ball screens and forced UNLV down to the sideline, because they doubled Stephen Zimmerman Jr. early and then took the double off, forcing the freshman to often hesitate inside, because they stunted with weakside help with superior athletes when Zimmerman rolled to the basket and didn’t allow him comfortable areas in which to work, because they had far more energy chasing off screens and not allowing UNLV many open looks, because they followed the Fisher-Hutson edict of forcing tough two-point attempts and allowing few easy baskets.

Same as always.

What tapes did UNLV coaches watch that would have their team shoot 23 3-pointers (and make five) and accept the offensive notion of standing around for the better part of 40 minutes while consistently falling deep into a shot clock against that defense?

“They’re a crazy aggressive team, one of the many great attributes they have,” said Zimmerman, who did well to get 14 points and 10 rebounds but who was often overmatched at the rim by smaller, more athletic players. “Obviously, having now played them, we know what to expect. This is a grown-up game, and they’re grown men.”

Here’s the thing: The Rebels weren’t ready to compete in this game against that team. They looked completely lost. The good news for UNLV is that nine Mountain West regular-season games remain, plenty of opportunities to get wins and regain the edge it has shown in four league victories. It can happen. The conference stinks. There are many more wins out there.

The Rebels even get another shot at San Diego State on March 5 in Viejas Arena.

Odds favor UNLV playing better that day than what we witnessed Saturday, because it would be impossible for the Rebels to look less prepared.

This one was easy to dissect: Mismatch between benches.

— Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be a heard on “Seat and Ed” on Fox Sports 1340 from 2 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. On Twitter: @edgraney.

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