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Rebels looking for ‘desperate’ defense to break out of slump

On New Year’s Eve, UNLV lost to San Diego State 76-67, a second consecutive Mountain West defeat. After the game, senior wing Luis Rodriguez said the team needed to get back to playing “desperate.”

A little more than two weeks later, UNLV is still struggling to turn its conference season around. Speaking during practice after UNLV’s 82-81 overtime defeat against Colorado State, Rodriguez once again brought up the idea of playing with defensive desperation.

“We play hard every game. I would never go out and say we didn’t give it our all,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s just a locked-in intensity, being focused on small stuff.”

The Rebels will try to end its recent two-game losing streak at 6 p.m. Tuesday as they head to play Utah State at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum in Logan, Utah. Since starting the season 10-0, the Rebels (12-5, 1-4 Mountain West) are 2-5 and just 1-4 during the past five.

Against the Aggies (14-4, 3-2), who started the season 9-0, coach Kevin Kruger’s team has a chance to get back into the win column. They’ll have to improve on defense, however, just to have the opportunity.

“It feels like we’re kind of going through a cold,” Kruger said. “We just have to battle through it.”

The Rebels built their perfect start because of their aggressive, high-turnover defense. Strong perimeter defenders like Rodriguez, sophomore Keshon Gilbert and fifth-year wing Elijah Parquet partnered with switchable post players in seniors David Muoka and Victor Iwuakor to create a defense which simply refused to allow opposing teams to make a field goal for long stretches when playing at its best.

UNLV’s players had embraced the team’s defensive identity, too. They flexed over steals and drawing charges. They were on the floor for every loose ball and forced opponents into difficult situations with their aggressive baseline trap defense.

Since conference play began, however, the Rebels haven’t kept the same defensive edge. They’re still turning teams over at a high rate — they forced Colorado State into 20 giveaways Saturday — but opponents are scoring at a much better rate.

UNLV’s defense is last in the Mountain West during conference play, allowing 78.8 points per game. It’s ranked ninth in opposing field goal percentage (46.4 percent) and opposing 3-point percentage (40 percent) during the same span.

There’s a few causes for this massive defensive regression. Assistant coach Barret Peery believes opponents have aggressively scouted the Rebels’ defense, and the coaching staff is already beginning to make changes. For example, UNLV went away from the baseline trap in recent games after it was exposed against Boise State’s passing.

UNLV’s defense has clearly missed the injured Parquet, too. The former Colorado transfer was a tone-setter and elite on-ball defender who was a key communicator. The Rebels haven’t won consecutive games since Parquet injured his knee against Washington State Dec. 10.

“Everybody knows he’s going to be prepared, he’s going to be focused,” Peery said. “He’s a guy that knows how we play, what we do. He knows our identity and he knows who he is, so we’ve missed that a little bit.”

Parquet’s return may be approaching. Ahead of the Colorado State game, Kruger said the fifth-year wing is progressing well. He’s running with much less soreness than before, and the Rebels’ coach expects Parquet to return “sooner rather than later.”

“I think he’s pretty close,” Kruger said.

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.

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