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Defense continues to betray Runnin’ Rebels as they visit New Mexico

From Steve Fisher at San Diego State to Lon Kruger at UNLV to Rick Pitino at Louisville, Marvin Menzies worked under coaches who believe in man-to-man defense.

Even Menzies’ own history as head coach at New Mexico State shows he shares that philosophy.

So it’s eye-catching that Menzies is increasingly relying on a 2-3 matchup zone as the Rebels struggle defensively with man, and expect him to continue to use it as the season progresses.

That includes Tuesday’s 6 p.m. PST game against New Mexico (9-7, 2-2 Mountain West) at WisePies Arena/The Pit in Albuquerque, New Mexico. ESPN3 will stream the game online.

“It’s something we felt with this particular team would be good for us at times,” Menzies said. “We ride it as long as we think it’s successful.”

Menzies said he was considering a change to the starting lineup, which could mean the first start for junior point guard Jovan Mooring. He has been playing starter minutes already 24.6, including 29.8 in conference play.

The Rebels (8-9, 1-3) are 10½-point underdogs to New Mexico team that blew a 25-point lead on Saturday against UNR and later a 14-point advantage with a little more than a minute left. UNR beat the Lobos 105-104 in overtime.

But UNLV has its own problems, having lost four of its past five games. The Rebels have given up a lot of layups in their man defense, and the switch to zone is a way to compensate for those issues. They are last in the Mountain West in scoring defense, allowing 74.9 points per game.

How long Menzies will stay with zone this season remains to be seen, but expect it to be an integral part of the game plan for now.

“Every time you go into a game, you try to develop a package without getting too far outside of who you want to be,” Menzies said. “We’ve seemed to have some success with the zone. I like to mix it up.”

Syracuse is one of the few teams that play zone almost exclusively, and it’s the program coaches like to compare with when talking about that kind of defense. Like the Orange, UNLV prefers to begin its zone with all five players inside the 3-point arc and then slide the defense toward the side of the ball.

Actually playing zone as effectively as Syracuse, which is long and athletic, is another matter.

The zone defense gives the Rebels their best chance at success, as was clear in Saturday’s game at Utah State. UNLV played well defensively for the first 30 minutes before the Aggies hurt the Rebels in their transition defense and pulled away for a 79-63 victory.

“The zone has been good,” Menzies said. “The transition into the zone has not been good because we’re giving up too many transition buckets. So we’ve got to shore that up.”

Menzies would prefer to play man defense, and he can tailor his recruiting classes to finding those kinds of players.

“We didn’t recruit to a system as much as we recruited to the best available (players) that were out there,” Menzies said. “We kind of had to build the team first and then try to mold it around what our abilities are. I think going forward you want to recruit to a style of play, and that’s what we’re doing now.”

Contact Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow @markanderson65 on Twitter.

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