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Rebels face challenge of going small after Carter’s injury

FRESNO, Calif. — Tuesday’s game at New Mexico was the first test for UNLV’s new reality.

The Rebels were forced for the first time to go with a four-guard set for much of that basketball game, and after an 87-83 loss to the Lobos, UNLV’s coaches have a better sense of what to expect.

It’s a still a work in progress, though, as the Rebels (13-10, 4-6 Mountain West) prepare to meet Fresno State (14-8, 5-4) at 4 p.m. today at the Save Mart Center. The Rebels are 1½-point favorites in the game, which will be streamed on ESPN3.

UNLV is having to go with the smaller lineup for much of the time because of the season-ending left knee injury to reserve forward Ben Carter last Saturday against San Diego State. He underwent successful surgery Thursday.

“Ben was a very good defensive player, and now we need other guys to step up,” UNLV interim coach Todd Simon said. “We’re going to have to shrink the floor a little bit more when that ball comes inside. Everyone’s going to have to add maybe 10 percent to what they’re doing to compensate for it.”

UNLV still starts a three-guard offense and uses that lineup much of the time, but what Carter’s injury did was force the Rebels to play four guards for long stretches.

And that causes major matchup problems, such as 6-foot 6-inch guard Jordan Cornish guarding New Mexico 7-1 center Obij Aget and 6-8 Dwayne Morgan playing the traditional center spot.

“We’re changing our style on the fly significantly because now you’ve got to learn a new position, you’re learning new plays, you’re learning new rotations on defense,” Simon said. “You’re talking about a lot of moving parts here as guys change positions midstream.

“But I give the guys a lot of credit. They’re battling and locked in and doing the best they can with it.”

Opponents will try to exploit the mismatches for easy baskets, and the size differential also can cause rebounding problems for the Rebels. They were beaten on the boards 38-32 by New Mexico, and the Rebels have a big challenge against Fresno State, which has an average plus-4.7 rebounding margin that is third in the Mountain West.

“All five (players) have to defensive rebound,” Simon said. “It’s just who we are and what we need to be going forward. There’s no debate about it or negotiation. If we don’t get the ball, the transition points won’t come anyway.”

That includes keeping 6-7 freshman Derrick Jones Jr. near the basket to help in that effort rather than sending the athletic forward down the court on a fast break.

“In high school, I had to play that role, so I’m kind of used to it,” Jones said. “During the course of this year, I’ve been getting out. We’ve been running the fast break. Whatever everyone on my team needs me to do, I’m going to do it.”

The game at New Mexico showed UNLV will ask a lot of 7-foot freshman forward Stephen Zimmerman Jr. He played 38 minutes, the second game in a row he has logged that kind of playing time.

Zimmerman tired late as the Lobos’ Tim Williams went after him to make three driving layups.

“It definitely is taxing, but it’s something that my team needs,” Zimmerman said. “They need me to produce and contribute, so I’ll do whatever it takes.”

Simon said there were other steps the coaches could do to keep Zimmerman from getting worn down, such as going to a zone on occasions.

“Offensive possessions, generally speaking, become longer for the opponent when you’re in zone,” Simon said. “It’s not forcing tempo quite as much off your defense, but at times, you do what you need to do in survival mode.

“I think it’s a change of pace for us. We’re (the No. 22) national defensive efficient team, and I don’t want to change that going forward. We’ve got to continue to make that our identity.”

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


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