As UNLV has increasingly gone to a small lineup, making the four-guard offense its main set the past two games and even flashing a five-guard look, junior forward Mbacke Diong’s role has become more uncertain.
Yet Diong has been an effective rim-protecting post player, and that need hasn’t gone away.
“We need production out of him,” UNLV coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “We need shot blocking. We need rebounding. We need offensive rebounding. We need energy plays.
“When he’s doing those things, he’s valuable and we’re going to keep him on the floor. There are also going to be times we look at the small-ball lineup and try to space people and drive.”
The 6-foot-11-inch Diong is posting career numbers even if his recent statistics have sagged. Entering Tuesday’s 7:30 p.m. game against Colorado State at the Thomas & Mack Center, he averages 7.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocked shots. His 13.0 offensive rebounding percentage is 52nd nationally.
Diong at one point this season scored in double digits in four consecutive games and five of seven, and he has had four double-doubles.
Though Diong played well with eight points and six rebounds in Saturday’s 78-73 victory at New Mexico, he has gone eight consecutive games scoring in single digits and six with single-figure rebounds.
“I can look back at the previous games and see what I was doing well and see what I’m not doing well right now,” Diong said. “I’ve got to figure it out.”
His statistical impact began to wane before the Rebels began to go small on a regular basis. Otzelberger said that’s because in Mountain West play, Diong has faced physical challenges in posts such as Utah State’s Neemias Queta and Colorado State’s Nico Carvacho or skilled bigs such as Fresno State’s Orlando Robinson and San Diego State’s Yanni Wetzell who also can shoot 3-pointers.
“There’s got to be a mental effect to that,” Otzelberger said. “If those guys are scoring, maybe you’re looking at it like, ‘I’m not scoring the same amount.’ Mbacke and I have had some great talks. We had some great talks (Monday), telling him, ‘Let’s refocus on what we need from you. Bring your best self.’”
Carvacho, a 6-11 senior center, averages 12.5 points and 11.0 rebounds, will test Diong and his Rebels teammates on Tuesday. Carvacho had 16 points and 11 rebounds in the first meeting, a 95-77 victory by the Rams on Feb. 1.
Otzelberger said it will need to be a team effort to defend Carvacho and not just Diong’s responsibility.
Diong’s responsibilities are evolving. Especially with forward Donnie Tillman likely out for the rest of the season with a strained knee, the Rebels are expected to continue to roll out small lineups.
UNLV needs Diong, however, to play an important part.
“We try to come every day and compete,” Diong said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m frustrated or not. I’m not frustrated, I’ve just got to play more intense.”
■ Who: UNLV vs. Colorado State
■ When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
■ Where: Thomas & Mack Center
■ TV/Radio: CBS Sports Network; KWWN (1100 AM, 100.9 FM)
■ Line: UNLV -1; total 147½
Colorado State (18-9, 9-5 Mountain West)
Coach: Niko Medved (30-29, second season)
UNLV (13-14, 8-6 MW)
Coach: T.J. Otzelberger (13-14, first season)