Sophomore forward Mbacke Diong isn’t a cure-all for UNLV defensively, but there is little question the Rebels are better when he’s on the court.
That was evident in Tuesday’s 77-72 victory over Air Force at the Thomas & Mack Center.
His plus-minus rating in 31 minutes was plus-15, five points higher than the next Rebel. Another way to look at that statistic, in the nine minutes that Diong sat, UNLV was outscored by 10 points.
“No question having his length and giving the other team his presence, they have to prepare for it a little bit,” UNLV coach Marvin Menzies said. “They still scored at a high clip, but there’s no question having him out there was a benefit.”
UNLV (13-11, 7-5 Mountain West) next plays at San Jose State (3-20, 0-11) at 2 p.m. Saturday, a team the Rebels beat by 38 points on Jan. 19 in Las Vegas. AT&T SportsNet will televise the game.
The Rebels were nearly upset in last season’s visit to San Jose State, with Noah Baumann making a 3-pointer with 24 seconds left for a 66-65 lead. Diong, on the floor as a defensive replacement for Brandon McCoy, was fouled with 6.9 seconds remaining and made the second of two free throws to force overtime. The Rebels eventually prevalied 82-76.
It would be stunning if Diong is called on to make crucial late free throws again this weekend given San Jose State is No. 336 in the NCAA NET rankings and No. 343 in Kenpom. UNLV is No. 160 and No. 166, respectively.
Diong, who is 6-feet, 11-inches, often was called on to play late key minutes in games last season because of his superior defense and McCoy’s struggles on that end.
“His ability to alter shots (stands out),” Menzies said of Diong. “He does a good job with his blocks as well (34), but his length makes people uncomfortable, and he really does a good job of invading people’s air space and making them take challenge shots. He’s very agile and has good lateral quickness.”
More has been asked of Diong this season, and he has upped his offensive game, increasing his scoring average from 2.1 points last year to 6.6 now. His minutes also increased from 9.2 per game to 23.0.
Defense remains the priority, and when a sprained ankle kept Diong out of four games in January, his absence was noticed. One of those games was a Jan. 16 trip to Air Force. The Falcons blew through a horrid UNLV defense to win 106-88.
Not that having Diong on the floor would have made all the difference, but it would’ve helped.
It certainly did Tuesday when he played solid defense and grabbed a team-high nine rebounds.
“My job was to keep them off the glass and do my work early (in the shot clock) so that they don’t have deep touches and rebound the ball and the point guard doesn’t go to the paint,” Diong said. “I’m not going to say I did a good job, but I did decent because we got a win. But I’m not satisfied.”
It’s clear the ankle no longer bothers him, allowing him to put in the effort defensively.
It was kind of an issue when I got back from injury,” Diong said. “But now I feel like I’m pretty good and I can give everything I have.”