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UNLV in close standings fight with regular season almost over

Updated March 4, 2024 - 6:42 pm

It’s no secret San Diego State is the standard for Mountain West men’s basketball.

The Aztecs are the reigning conference regular-season and tournament champions and reached last year’s national championship game. They’ve also had UNLV’s number. San Diego State has won its last six matchups against the Rebels.

UNLV hosts the No. 21 Aztecs at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Thomas &Mack Center. Both teams are 11-5 and in a three-way tie for third in the Mountain West standings with UNR. Utah State and Boise State are tied for first at 12-4.

The Rebels have won nine of their last 10 games to put themselves into a strong position entering this matchup. They know it’s an important one with just two regular-season contests remaining, even if recent series history hasn’t been on their side.

“The counterargument would be that we played some other ranked teams well this year,” Kruger said. “We’ve had some really big wins. Yeah, (San Diego State) is different in terms of style and physicality, but we should be walking in with confidence. We’re playing well.”

San Diego State defeated UNLV 72-61 on Jan. 6. Kruger said the Rebels have improved since then in guarding the ball and winning rebounding battles.

“We shouldn’t be scared of anything,” Kruger said. “We know that it’s going to be a tough game. … When you’re getting ready for San Diego State, you know you got to be tough. You got to play really hard just to give yourself a chance.”

Junior forward Rob Whaley Jr. has also emerged since the last time the two teams played, having started UNLV’s last 10 games.

“(Whaley has) given us a level of physicality that we need,” Kruger said. “He’s had a really good year. His presence around the rim offensively and defensively has been really good for us.”

Whaley came off the bench and played 18 minutes in the Rebels’ first meeting with the Aztecs. His help on defense kept UNLV close before San Diego State took control.

His style of play should give the Rebels a boost again in what should be a physical Mountain West contest.

“I like close games. I like physical games,” Whaley said. “I like games that go down to the wire because it shows who the tougher team is. Just off of who’s the tougher team, we’re going to prove (Tuesday) that we’re the tougher team.”

UNLV will have a challenge Tuesday guarding San Diego State guard Jaedon LeDee, who leads the conference in scoring at 20.8 points per game.

Whaley and fifth-year guard Luis Rodriguez will spend a lot of time guarding LeDee on Tuesday.

“We know what type of team we are,” Whaley said. “We know that we’re up there with everyone else, that we’re a top team in this conference and we can compete with anybody.”

Contact Alex Wright at awright@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlexWright1028 on X.

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