UNLV’s defense not all it seems

BERKELEY, Calif. — Stats don’t lie?

It’s debatable. They might fib a little. They might not paint the clearest of pictures, instead suggesting UNLV is a better defensive basketball team than it really is at this point.

The Rebels are ranked 21st nationally and yet have played more like a top-50 side, one that this past week continued a trend dating to last season in which the sight of an opposing arena causes UNLV players to forget their senses and most of what they’ve been taught.

A 68-60 win against not-so-mighty Portland on Tuesday was UNLV’s first game away from the Thomas & Mack Center, and the Rebels looked very much like a team that went 6-7 in true road games last year, meaning one that shot too many 3-pointers (25) and was outrebounded (43-39) by an opponent that had no business being even on the boards, never mind winning the battle.

Things will be tougher today, when UNLV visits a California team picked to finish third in an improved Pac-12 Conference and yet one coming off a 25-point loss at Wisconsin. The Rebels will get every ounce of Cal’s focus.

It’s a game in which UNLV must hope its good defensive numbers outperform its obvious lapses in technique, where limiting how well others shoot is just part of the solution at that end of the floor.

"One of the things our staff thought was most important going into the year was making sure we spent plenty of time on our halfcourt defense and those concepts," coach Dave Rice said. "Certainly, we need to rebound the ball better, but our other (statistics) are very good."

The ones Rice is talking about: UNLV leads the Mountain West Conference in field-goal percentage defense (35.5 percent), 3-point defense (22.8 percent), blocks (5.9 average) and steals (9.9). When the Rebels are committed at the defensive end, it’s tough getting a good shot against them, much less making many.

But they also have a harder time securing rebounds than a shy kid does a prom date.

The Rebels rank last among Mountain West teams in defensive rebounding, allowing a 38.1 average. This is what happens when guards are consistently beaten off the dribble and bigs have to leave others to help and everyone sort of falls out of position.

Offenses are created to attack from the perimeter, to force defenders away from comfort zones and in turn create open shots. It’s a hard truth the Rebels seem to learn most times an opposing player puts the ball to the floor.

"I’ll always remember Coach (Jerry) Tarkanian saying the hardest thing in basketball is guarding the ball," Rice said. "That has always stuck with me. Teams that can do it well are way ahead of the game.

"You can make guys better at defending (the dribble). There is a limit to it, based on a person’s natural quickness. But things like technique and strength and effort and commitment can all be improved. There is no substitute for those things."

It’s sort of like a defensive back in football, where applying man coverage against speedy wide receivers remains one of the game’s hardest skills. If the Rebels are who they are against the dribble, which isn’t very good, the hope is that those post players inside can make up for it with strong help more times than not.

The hope is that Khem Birch eventually makes things a lot better.

The transfer center from Pittsburgh isn’t eligible until a Dec. 17 game at Texas-El Paso, but his presence will allow freshman Anthony Bennett to play a more natural power forward spot and junior Mike Moser to see more time at small forward.

Rice’s take: Once the Rebels have their entire roster, defensive breakdowns outside will be more consistently covered by those inside.

"It’s all speculation at this point because he hasn’t played a game for us yet, but I would think because of Khem’s ability to block shots, he will be a big defensive presence for us," Rice said. "It’s going to take time. He hasn’t played a game in a year. But we’re confident he’ll be a very important part of what we do."

It won’t matter today at Haas Pavilion, where a Cal team that lost at UNLV 85-68 last season is 2-0 at home and 6-1 overall.

It’s a road game for UNLV, which means stats become secondary to whether the Rebels can walk into another’s home and not panic.

There is a trend developing here.

Might be a good time to start changing it.

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.

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