The UNLV Rebels will limp into Thomas & Mack Center for their opening Mountain West tournament game against the Nevada Wolf Pack today.
“We just have to go into it with the idea that whoever is on the floor, we have to play well,” Wolf Pack coach David Carter said of the 2:30 p.m. game against the Rebels in Las Vegas. “We have to respect who they have to step up in their roles.”
The seventh-seeded Rebels could be down to six scholarship players when they take on the 10th-seeded Wolf Pack. Guards Rashad Vaughn, Dantley Walker and Daquan Cook have knee injuries, guard Patrick McCaw is suffering from a concussion and forward Ben Carter has a back injury.
Carter and Cook have missed the entire season. Walker hurt his knee Feb. 14 against Air Force and has missed the last six games. Vaughn, the Rebels’ leading scorer at 17.8 points a game, suffered his knee injury against Fresno State on Feb. 12 and has missed the Rebels’ last seven games. McCaw missed the Rebels’ 71-58 win over San Jose State on Saturday after colliding into the back of a teammate and suffering a concussion against San Diego State on March 4.
The Rebels, who are 3-4 without Vaughn, beat San Jose State with just six scholarship players — Christian Wood, Goodluck Okonoboh, Jordan Cornish, Jelan Kendrick, Cody Doolin and Dwayne Morgan — and one walk-on (Barry Cheaney) seeing action in the game.
“They have guys who can fill their roles,” Wolf Pack guard D.J. Fenner said.
“I’m sure we’ll get their best shot,” Wolf Pack guard Marqueze Coleman said, “and they are going to get our best shot.”
The Rebels, who finished the regular season at 17-14 overall and 8-10 in league play, are physically banged up. The Wolf Pack (9-21, 5-13) are mentally fragile right now. The 21 losses are the most for the Pack since it went 2-24 in 1971-72. The Wolf Pack has also lost 13 of its last 16 games, since it went to Thomas & Mack on Jan. 7 and beat the Rebels 64-62.
The Wolf Pack, though, likes its chances against the Rebels. The Pack has won its last two games at Thomas & Mack against UNLV. In addition to winning there two months ago the Pack also went down south and beat the Rebels 74-71 on Jan. 8, 2014.
The Wolf Pack, though, has never won three games in a row over UNLV in Las Vegas.
“We know we can win there,” Coleman said. “We’ve done it before.”
UNLV won the rematch with the Wolf Pack, 67-62, on Jan. 27 at Lawlor Events Center. This will be the first time in the 53-year-old rivalry (UNLV leads the series 57-22) the two Silver State foes have met three times in one season.
“I do like the matchup,” Carter said. “I don’t see a big mismatch. It’s a team we are very familiar with and a team we match up well with.”
The Rebels’ frontcourt features the 6-11 Wood and 6-10 Okonoboh. Wood averages 15.2 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.8 blocks while Okonoboh averages 5.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. The two have hurt the Pack this year with Wood averaging 16.5 points and 12 rebounds and Okonoboh 9.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.5 blocks in the two games against Nevada.
The Pack will counter with 6-9 A.J. West (13.1 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.4 blocks), 6-9 Robyn Missa (2.8 points, 2.8 blocks) and 6-11 Lucas Stivrins (3.1 points, 2.6 rebounds). West had 15 points and 15 rebounds in both games against UNLV this year.
The area where the Pack could really exploit the injured Rebels is in the backcourt.
“Athletically I think we really match up well with their guards,” Carter said.
And the Pack simply has more healthy bodies in the backcourt right now.
The Rebels are left with Doolin, Kendrick and Cornish if McCaw and Vaughn do not play. The 6-3 Doolin, who played his first three seasons at San Francisco, averages 6.3 points and 3.9 assists a game. The 6-6 Kendrick averages 6.9 points and 3.8 rebounds while the 6-6 Cornish is at 5.1 points a game. The 6-6 McCaw averages 10.0 points and 3.3 rebounds.
The Pack has a host of guards in Coleman (8.7 points), Tyron Criswell (11.0 points, 4.2 rebounds), Eric Cooper (9.6 points), Fenner (6.5 points) and Michael Perez (4.1 points). Cooper scored 12 points on four 3-pointers in the Pack’s win at Thomas & Mack on Jan. 7.
“It’s going to be a close game,” Carter said. “I really think it’s going to be decided by one or two possessions.”
The Wolf Pack-Rebels winner will play No. 2 seed San Diego State on Thursday at 6 p.m. The other game on Wednesday is No. 8 seed New Mexico against No. 9 Air Force at noon. The Air Force-New Mexico winner plays No. 1 seed Boise State on Thursday at noon.
Utah State (No. 5 seed) plays Wyoming (No. 4) on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. while No. 6 Fresno State takes on No. 3 Colorado State on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. The tournament championship game is Saturday at 3 p.m.
The Wolf Pack will have to win four games in four days to win the tournament and go to the NCAA Tournament. The Wolf Pack won four games in a row once this year, beating Marshall, Northwest Christian and Air Force at home and UNLV on the road from Dec. 22 through Jan. 7.
Carter, though, has never won more than one game in a postseason tournament in his five previous seasons as head coach. The Pack is 0-2 in Mountain West tournament games since joining the conference in 2012-13, losing to Boise State (75-62) last year and Wyoming (85-81) in 2013. The last time the Pack won a postseason conference tournament was 2006 in the Western Athletic Conference. The Pack also won the WAC Tournament in 2004 as well as the Big Sky Tournament in 1984 and 1985.
“We have nothing to lose,” Carter said.
A solid run in the tournament, though, could salvage this disappointing season for the Pack and build some momentum for next year.
“It’s a new season,” Coleman said. “It’s win or go home.”
“We’re going in ready to win this game,” Fenner said. “The regular season doesn’t matter. It’s the tournament. We have a new mindset and a new confidence. If we win four games in a row we’re going to do what we originally planned to do, plain and simple.”