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January 24, 2013

Rebels get to start fresh

STARTING FRESH - When the 2012-13 UNLV basketball schedule came out over the summer, the roughest terrain was found in the first two weeks of Mountain West action. Having navigated through that stretch with a 2-2 record, the Runnin' Rebels (15-4) will now look to make a dent in New Mexico's hold on first place in the conference.

It all starts Thursday whenever UNLV returns home to the Thomas & Mack Center to square off with the biggest surprise team in the league this season. Wyoming visits sporting a 15-2 mark overall and 2-1 in league play.

The Cowboys were the lone MWC team to go through nonconference without a blemish on their resume. They head into this game on the heels of a huge home win over San Diego State, 58-45.

On the Rebels' side, UNLV is now in prime position to make a solid run before the second half of conference play. The Rebels host Wyoming and UNR before heading back on the road for games at Boise State and Fresno State. A four-game winning streak would most likely put the Rebels, at worst, a game behind the Lobos when UNM visits Las Vegas.

Whether or not that comes to fruition is probably based more on how the Rebels approach these next four games rather than the competition itself. UNLV is the much more talented squad and will be favored in all the matchups. In fact, the Rebels will likely be favored in the rest of their games this season until the NCAA Tournament in March.

Head coach Dave Rice will find out the mental makeup of his team very soon, beginning Thursday.

GETTING DEFENSIVE - For the most part, Mountain West teams play a wide-open conducive to the style the Rebels want to play on a nightly basis.

That cannot be said for Wyoming. The Cowboys deploy a style more reminiscent of the 1950's than 2013. It's slow, plodding and, more than anything else, defensive.

Credit goes to Cowboys' coach Larry Shyatt for implementing this system. Few teams have the patience to battle Wyoming for 40 minutes and tend to rush things when they have the ball.

The Cowboys are fifth in the country in points allowed (53.8). The low point total may have more to do with their offensive approach than their defensive intensity. Wyoming seems to be more than comfortable with running out a shot clock without even attempting a try at the bucket.

It's that mindset that gets teams trying to speed up the pace to rush down the floor and jack up a quick attempt only to have to head back on defense for another 35 seconds of hard work.

With the Rebels' youth, this could be the major concern for Rice. Will his team show maturity in this battle of wills or will the Rebels succumb to the same fate that 15 others have this season?

The key against the Pokes is to not fall down by too many. A 10-point deficit against Wyoming is more like being behind by 15 or 20 to a normal squad.

Quite frankly, it's really hard to catch up because you start pressing to make plays because you see the ball less than usual.

Another approach that could be beneficial against the Cowboys is getting them to turn the ball over. Despite Wyoming's slow style, it does make mistakes with the ball, averaging over 12 turnovers a game.

UNLV hasn't been great at forcing opponents into miscues but it should be a focal point in this contest.

POWER BATTLE - The most interesting matchup to watch on the floor in this contest will be a battle of youth versus experience.

Leonard Washington leads the Cowboys in points (14) and rebounds (9) a game and is as wily as they come on both ends of the floor. He's deliberate, crafty, and above all else, physical.

How freshman sensation Anthony Bennett fares against Washington will go a long way in deciding the outcome of the game.

Bennett is by far the top NBA prospect in the MWC but has been slowed in league play by constant double-teams and a determination by opponents to rough him up in the paint.

In the previous two games, Bennett hasn't reached the double-digit mark, which he did in every single game up until that point. He also has only averaged four rebounds a game in those two contests.

It has been are first sign that maybe, just maybe, Bennett might be slowing down some. His production had been so great for the first 17 games that it may have been taken for granted.

For the Rebels to be successful, Bennett must match Washington in the production department. He can't allow Washington to have a big game and keep the Pokes hanging around.

For more in-depth and insider information, be sure to check out Rebel Confidential.



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