UNLV hopes practice pays off against Air Force’s Princeton style
The Rebels got some extra time to prepare for Air Force’s unique offense, but are likely to be without two starters again as they try to snap a three-game losing skid.
There aren’t many things UNLV fifth-year guard EJ Harkless hasn’t done in college basketball.
The San Bernardino, California, native is playing at his third school in his third conference in five years. He’s experienced every travel plan, seen every stadium setup and played in front of fans all across the country.
But Harkless has never played Air Force, and he’s never had to wait so late into a season to see a conference opponent for the first time, especially one as unique as the Falcons.
“They’re unfazed,” Harkless said after watching Air Force on film. “They don’t complain to each other. They don’t complain to their coach. They don’t complain to the refs. They get knocked over, they come right back and set another hard screen. They’re just consistent.”
UNLV (16-11, 5-10 Mountain West) has a chance to snap a three-game losing streak at 6:30 p.m. Friday when it welcomes Air Force (14-15, 5-11) to the Thomas & Mack Center. It’s the only regular-season meeting between the teams this season.
Coming off a four-point loss to Boise State on Sunday, UNLV has gotten a few extra days of practice this week. Coach Kevin Kruger said if there’s any team in the conference he’d prefer additional time to prepare for, it’s Air Force.
“It’s a style and a system that no one else plays on our schedule,” Kruger said. “It’s unique.”
Air Force utilizes principles from the Princeton offense. The Falcons use lots of motion and screens, including aggressive back cuts and consistent ball movement, and they require players to read situations instead of relying on scripted plays.
Jake Heidbreder, a 6-foot-5-inch sophomore guard, leads the Falcons with 14.8 points per game.
The Rebels will have to be disciplined defensively. Kruger said preparing the team was almost like deprogramming the instincts UNLV has played with all season, as the Air Force offense tends to expose deficiencies that can normally be hidden.
Kruger and Harkless said the Rebels have had a good week of practice. However, the break wasn’t long enough to get some much-needed reinforcements.
Fifth-year wing Elijah Parquet missed the loss to Boise State, and senior wing Luis Rodriguez hasn’t played since Feb. 11. The veteran wings have been managing smaller injury issues after missing earlier stints with knee and groin injuries, respectively.
Both are doubtful against Air Force, Kruger said.
“Our decision on how many we’re going to play has kind of been made for us,” Kruger said.
UNLV’s limited options have given other players a chance to step up. Sophomore Shane Nowell made his first career start for the Rebels on Sunday, and Kruger praised his defense against conference player of the year candidate Tyson Degenhart.
Rebels sophomore guard Jackie Johnson III also gave the team big minutes Sunday during his first appearance since Jan. 21.
“They stayed strong,” Kruger said. “They stayed consistent in their work. Obviously disappointed when they weren’t getting a ton of minutes, but they didn’t let it linger over into anyone else’s experience or situation, so I’m really proud of them for that.”
Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at email@example.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.
Who: Air Force at UNLV
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Thomas & Mack Center
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: KWWN (1100 AM/100.9 FM)
Line: UNLV -9½; total 139½