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UNLV focuses on rebounding before New Year’s Eve clash with Aztecs

It’s starting to become a common occurrence.

For 30 seconds, UNLV’s defense does its job. The Rebels make the right switches, rotate well and deny clear looks at the rim to force a late attempt by an opponent against the shot clock.

Then, all their effort goes to waste. An opposing team grabs an offensive rebound and gets another chance.

UNLV surrendered 16 offensive rebounds Wednesday during its 75-72 overtime loss to San Jose State. The Spartans turned those extra opportunities into 12 additional points.

“It hurts,” senior center David Muoka said. “You don’t want to give that up.”

Defensive rebounding hasn’t been a strength of the Rebels this season. Playing a switchable, athletic lineup anchored by one traditional big man — Muoka or senior forward Victor Iwuakor — the Rebels allow 37.4 opposing rebounds per game, ranking last in the Mountain West.

UNLV (11-2, 0-1 Mountain West) faces another strong offensive rebounding team at 1 p.m. Saturday, when it welcomes San Diego State (10-3, 1-0) for a New Year’s Eve clash at the Thomas & Mack Center.

The Rebels have only beaten the Aztecs twice dating to the 2013-14 season, going 2-19 during that stretch.

“If we want to win games, we’re going to have to rebound it,” UNLV coach Kevin Kruger said.

So far, the Rebels have been outrebounded in eight of their 13 games this season, including their past four outings. Opposing teams have reached double figures in offensive rebounds 10 times this season, and during four of UNLV’s past five games, it surrendered 16 or more offensive rebounds.

The Rebels enter Saturday’s game with a negative rebounding differential.

Kruger doesn’t think the solution to the Rebels’ problem is simply adding size. He said his team needs to have the emphasis and focus to see out possessions to the very end.

“If we can finish it with rebounds and finish out possessions, I think we can take a huge step to solidify being as good defensively as we have been,” Kruger said.

Kruger said his switch-heavy defensive scheme means players don’t have specific assignments for defensive rebounding. However, it also relies on the Rebels’ being aware of which opposing players will crash the glass, and requires players to take individual responsibility for rebounding.

“I’m hitting my guy, at least trying to make sure he doesn’t get it,” Muoka said.

UNLV has gotten in particular trouble when Muoka or Iwuakor is drawn out of the paint by opposing guards.

Kruger has repeatedly praised both players for their ability to guard on the perimeter despite their size, and their versatility is key to the Rebels’ defense. But Muoka admitted he didn’t get back down into the paint enough against San Jose State.

Led by senior center and former Findlay Prep star Nathan Mensah, the Aztecs are tied for third in the conference in opposition rebounds, allowing just 31.9 per game. San Diego State also grabs 9.7 offensive rebounds per game, fourth-best in the Mountain West.

“I have to take responsibility for that,” Muoka said. “But as a team, just as a collective, all five guys have to be physical, hit someone, box out and hunt down the rebounds.”

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

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