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UNLV’s assets, weaknesses pretty much as expected

When you know it’s time for league play to begin: At one point in your final nonconference game, your opponent has 12 turnovers, zero assists, nine shots in 12 minutes and its coach has screamed out at least eight set plays his team can’t execute or really has no idea what they mean.

I’m guessing the latter for Central Michigan.

The Chippewas aren’t very good, and although it took UNLV far longer than it should have to prove that point, the Rebels on Thursday posted a 73-47 victory in their final game before Jimmer Fredette begins jacking shots from the Thomas & Mack Center parking lot.

Fredette and Brigham Young open Mountain West play here Wednesday, and while the last month hasn’t shown us anything different from a preseason forecast that suggested any of four teams could win the conference, it’s fairly obvious how the Rebels intend on contending.

The script hasn’t changed much from last year.

What the Rebels have done at 12-2 and with a Top 20 RPI is position themselves for another NCAA Tournament berth, and yet it will be the next 16 games that will likely define what seed they receive on Selection Sunday.

“We took some things for granted early in the season with how well we were shooting,” sophomore guard Justin Hawkins said. “We just have to keep getting back in the gym and working. Our conference is very good. San Diego State, BYU, Colorado State is playing well. … There are a lot of teams that can beat us on nights we don’t play well.”

UNLV has strengths that will fluster other MWC teams; it also has weaknesses the best opponents will expose.

Some things to consider as Jimmer and his teammates approach …

■ Scary for MWC opponents: The Rebels rank second in scoring defense and field-goal defense. They lead the conference with an average of 8.9 steals and can control games on the perimeter with a rotation of guards and wings that are unrivaled across the league. When they are active for 40 minutes defensively, the Rebels are conference championship-type good.

■ Scary for UNLV: There is a good chance the post trio of Brice Massamba, Quintrell Thomas and Carlos Lopez all will have fouled out three minutes into any game against San Diego State. Massamba and Thomas might have two fouls each during pregame layups.

UNLV is an average rebounding team at best on most nights and often below average when it comes to what its frontcourt offers at either end.

Do you remember the matchup issues UNLV had against the Aztecs last year? Nothing thus far insinuates it could be any different.

■ Scary for MWC opponents: Despite a few recent games that suggest otherwise, UNLV still ranks as the league’s second-best shooting team to San Diego State. The Rebels will be in any game they make shots and don’t embrace a bad habit of settling for 3-pointers.

■ Scary for UNLV: Anthony Marshall continues to think of himself as a jump shooter. Marshall as a sophomore could have a nice impact in league if he plays to his athletic strength by creating chances or drawing fouls off the dribble.

■ Scary for MWC opponents: The Rebels force about 4.5 turnovers more than they commit, which translates to more possessions and opportunities to score. They also share the ball well enough to rank third among league teams in assists and are athletic enough to rank third in blocks. All good things. All important factors in winning.

■ Scary for UNLV: It is by percentage the worst free-throw shooting team in the conference. You read that right. The worst. Now, when you are 12-2, that might not seem like such a huge deal. But in tight road games against San Diego State or BYU or New Mexico, it’s often the difference between winning a league and settling for the No. 3 or 4 seed in the conference tournament.

“Everyone would like to be further along (entering conference), but we are at a good starting point,” coach Lon Kruger said. “The most important thing is, we understand we need to keep getting better because there are teams in our league playing at a very high level.

“Any team that doesn’t continue to get better and make progress is going to fall behind.”

The script hasn’t changed: Defend better than most and hope to make enough shots to overcome inconsistent and often inferior play inside.

UNLV is good enough in spots to win the Mountain West. It’s suspect enough in others to finish third.

Where have we heard this before?

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 2 to 4 p.m. Monday and Thursday on “Monsters of the Midday,” Fox Sports Radio 920 AM.

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