Mountain West Basketball: Utah State vs. UNLV–Preview, Odds, Prediction

Mountain West Basketball: Utah State vs. UNLV–Preview, Odds, Prediction

Aggies, Rebels meet in MWC showdown in Vegas & @MWCwire

What: Utah State Aggies (22-7, 11-5) @ UNLV Runnin’ Rebels (17-11, 6-10)
When: Wednesday, March 1st – 9:00 MT, 8:00 PT
Where: Thomas & Mack Center; Las Vegas, NV
How To Watch: CBS Sports Network
Odds: Utah State -2 Over/Under 147

It’s the last week of the regular season already, and two teams with different targets will meet in a Mountain West Conference clash in Vegas Wednesday night when Utah State travels to the Thomas & Mack Center to take on UNLV. The two met in mid-January with the Aggies eking out a 75-71 home win on the back of a huge Steven Ashworth three-pointer. The way the MWC has been from start to finish, we may be in store for another barnburner in Sin City.

For Utah State, they find themselves squarely on the bubble of the NCAA tournament field according to most prognosticators. Fortunately they will have a large say in their own fate with their remaining schedule. If they can put together a road win against a solid UNLV club, a home win against an outstanding Boise State team, and win a quarterfinal game in the Mountain West tournament against an unknown but no doubt quality team, they will likely have done enough to get an at-large bid to the Big Dance. There is little, or no margin for error though.

The three game trek to the postseason begins against the mercurial Rebels. Like Utah State, UNLV was one of the last 10 unbeaten teams in the country by the time the middle of December rolled around. Part of that was certainly due to a rather soft non-conference schedule, but the effort and energy the Rebels played with was at an incredibly high rate, and as a result they were leading the nation in turnovers forced. It all came crashing down though once conference play started. There have been injuries to several contributors, but there are still enough capable bodies in Kevin Kruger’s rotation, and there are multiple teams in the conference that don’t utilize much of a bench and have still been able to succeed. What has happened is a bit of a drop in the intensity on the defensive end, or at the very least a less consistent top flight effort. Combine that with questionable shot selection at times (unsurprisingly those two factors often go together) and you have the recipe for a disappointing league record to date.

With UNLV well out of the bubble conversation, they have one avenue to the 68 team field – win the Mountain West Conference tournament, one that just so happens to be played on their home floor. The bracket and seedings won’t be finalized until after the weekend’s games are complete, but the Rebels are likely to be in the 7-9 seed range and cannot get up to the top 5 that receive first round byes. This means they will have to do something very few teams in good conferences find a way to do – win 4 games in 4 days. Home floor or not, that will be made even more difficult this year with how strong the MWC is. Therefore, it will be interesting to see how Kruger approaches this week. In truth there is not a lot to play for, aside from being a spoiler to Utah State’s postseason hopes. Of course that angle goes out the window on Saturday as they travel to in-state rival Nevada, where they will also try to derail the Wolf Pack’s tournament plans, and take pleasure if they are able to do so. Still, while a coach isn’t likely to not try to win certain games, you could understand UNLV maybe tinkering with some things on either side of the floor and keeping some cards close to the vest, with the idea being all systems go for Mountain West Madness the following week.

None of that will have any impact however, on Ryan Odom and his preparation for this end of season run. The Aggies should be fully charged and ready to go, as their bye in the MW rotation was well-timed this past weekend. The last three halves of basketball seem to imply USU is ready for a charge. After falling behind Nevada 47-32 at the half, they have put together probably their best stretch of defensive basketball this season. They held the Wolf Pack to 19 second half points, and then stifled Wyoming in a 65-55 road victory. They have held their last 5 opponents under 70 points as well. Paired with a streaky and potentially lethal offense, Utah State is a dangerous team.

In the first meeting between these two, UNLV scraped back from a double-figure deficit and actually took a late lead before Ashworth’s heroics. The Rebels defense was still wreaking havoc at that point in the season, and forced 21 Aggie turnovers, leading to 27 UNLV points. Amazingly, despite leading scorer EJ Harkless being held to a season low 2 points, the game still went to the wire. Huge games off the bench by Keyshawn Hall and Jordan McCabe kept it close. Harkless has been on a tear since then, and made a couple of huge game winning plays in the come from behind victory against Air Force over the weekend.

While Utah State had 21 turnovers in that game, they also had 21 assists on 24 made field goals, an insane 88% rate. In other words it was almost feast or famine – if the Aggies could beat the initial wave of ball pressure and make an extra pass or two, there would be a wide open shooter waiting to receive a pass and fire away. Often that recipient was Taylor Funk, as the sharpshooter was 6-9 from deep, leading to a game high 20 points. Much of that did come in the first half, so maybe an adjustment from Kruger slowed the stretch 4 down. If so, they would be wise to stick with that game plan on Wednesday night.

The intangibles, many of them already mentioned, heavily slant towards Utah State in this one. The Aggies are rested, have improved in an area of concern (defensively), and are playing for their tournament lives. The Rebels meanwhile, have their sights set on the conference tournament starting in the middle of next week (and maybe an eye towards the Silver State Showdown with Nevada as well). Also, while it is very difficult to win on the road in this league, don’t expect a full house or a massive home court advantage here. Too many checks in the column of the road team, and it says here Utah State keeps its tournament hopes alive.

Prediction: Utah State 80 UNLV 74


More Bowl Projections!

Final Mountain West Bowl Projections

Week 13 Mountain West Football Bowl Projections

Week 12 Mountain West Bowl Projections

Story originally appeared on Mountain West Wire