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UNLV, other MW teams find road tougher than usual

UNLV will walk into one of the Mountain West’s most rabid arenas Wednesday when the Rebels visit Utah State at 7 p.m.

The student section, known as The Hurd, gets loud early with its “I believe that we will win” chant and will try to find just about any way to make the opposing team feel uncomfortable by riding players who might be having an off night.

“They’re knowledgeable, they’re passionate and they understand good basketball,” Aggies coach Craig Smith said of his fan base. “When you have a packed house, it gives your team a tremendous amount of energy and helps provide confidence.”

Home court is always an advantage at any level of basketball, but it is even more pronounced during Mountain West play this season.

Take away first-place San Diego State, which is 6-0 away from home in Mountain West games, and the league teams were a combined 13-41 on the road going into Tuesday night’s play.

Dig a little deeper, and the differences are even starker.

Colorado State, Boise State, UNLV, Utah State, UNR and New Mexico each had winning home conference records (a combined 28-4 before Tuesday), and each team has a losing road mark (a combined 9-24).

UNLV coach T.J. Otzelberger said three factors lead to success on the road — experienced players, good defense and effective outside shooting. The Mountain West is filled with teams that have one or two of those qualities, but not all three.

“The whole league could finish 10-8,” Otzelberger said tongue-in-cheek.

The Rebels are one of those teams that plays substantially better at home, going 4-1 with its one loss a four-point defeat to the No. 4 Aztecs. They are 2-3 on the road, squeezing by last-place Wyoming in overtime for one of the victories.

Their other win, however, came in an 81-80 in double overtime game at Fresno State on Dec. 4 that is among the Rebels’ top performances.

That game, though, didn’t measure up to UNLV’s stunning 70-53 victory over Utah State on Jan. 1 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

“Utah State was the best game we’ve played this year,” Otzelberger said. “Good things are going to happen if you play that hard. So I take that from (the first game) that we need to play really hard and create ball movement and have really active hands defensively.”

UNLV has another chance to put together that kind of performance against Utah State.

The preseason favorite Aggies have been inconsistent at 6-5 in the conference, but they also have dealt with injuries to Sam Merrill, the reigning Mountain West Player of the Year, and Neemias Queta, the reigning conference Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year. Merrill was bothered by an ankle injury in the loss at UNLV, and Queta (knee) didn’t play.

Both will play against the Rebels in the rematch.

“They beat us in every facet of the game at their place,” Smith said. “They certainly were tougher than us. They were more prepared than us. And they executed better than us.

“We’re going to have our hands full on Wednesday night.”

Butwith the home court, the Aggies will have a big advantage, and their fans will get the night started by chanting they believe they will win.

It’s something almost every Mountain West team can say with confidence when they’re at home.

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @markanderson65 on Twitter.

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