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College Basketball Analysis: UNLV vs. Louisville

UNLV Runnin’ Rebels @ Louisville Cardinals
KFC Yum! Center – Louisville, KY
Saturday December 8, 2010
Time: 12:02 pm EST
T.V.: ESPNU Dan McLaughlin, play-by-play; Bob Valvano, analyst.
Radio: WKRD (790 AM, 101.7 FM) Paul Rogers, play-by-play; Doug Ormay, analyst.
Series History: Tied 5-5 (2-2 in Louisville, 2-3 in Las Vegas, 1-0 neutral)
Officials: Steve Skiles, Don Daily, Pat Adams

Louisville will face it’s first real test of the season on Saturday in Lon Kruger’s Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV in the Billy Minardi Classic. The Billy Minardi Classic originated in 2002 to honor the memory of Billy Minardi, brother-in-law of U of L Coach Rick Pitino who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Louisville is 10-1 in the Classic, with its only loss coming in 2006 to Massachusetts.

There are just 17 unbeaten teams left in Division I, and once the dust settles on this battle there will be a maximum of 16. UNLV has faced a tougher batch of opponents that the Cardinals, taking out Wisconsin in Vegas, and winning the 76 Classic with consecutive wins over Tulsa, Murray State and Virginia Tech. However, in their last two outings, the Rebels have struggled in closer-than-they-should-have-been wins over Nevada and Boise State.

The Cards have fell to UNLV the past two seasons and will likely draw some added motivation from those losses. This is UNLV’s best start since the 1990-91 squad won its first 34 games en route to a Final Four loss to the Pukies. The Runnin’ Rebels return all five starters and five other letterwinners from last season’s team that finished the season with an overall record of 25-9 and lost in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament, 66-69 to Northern Iowa.

Louisville has been a strong defensive team all season, holding the Dons of San Francisco to just 11 second half points on Wednesday night. They will need to showcase that defense on Saturday as UNLV comes in as the second most proficient shooting team in the nation, connecting on 53.3 percent of its shots. The Runnin’ Rebels are also ninth nationally in field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to a .369 clip shooting.

Returning to the Bluegrass State for the first time in three years will be Rebel senior guard and University of Kentucky transfer Derrick Jasper. Jasper is fifth on the team in scoring this season at 9.1 points per game while leading UNLV in rebounds, pulling down 5.4 a contest. Jasper is having a solid season, also contributing 2.3 assists and 1.0 steal a game while shooting 52.2 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from three-point land. When asked about his return Jasper had this to say: “It’s exciting. I haven’t been there for three years. I’m just looking forward to the game. Going into Louisville, they are an undefeated ranked team so it should be a good match-up for us. We are looking forward to the Louisville game to prove ourselves.”

The Runnin’ Rebels are a deep team, employing a nine-man rotation, all of whom are athletic and know how to play defense. They would be 10-deep but long-range ace Kendall Wallace was lost for the season with a knee injury. Louisville can match UNLV in depth and both teams seem to match up very well. They also have the same glaring weakness thus far and that is rebounding.

Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas was supposed to help out on the boards for the Rebels, but has only been able to muster a measly 3.7 boards a game. With Jasper leading the team on the glass, their #2 window cleaner, and all around best player thus far is forward Chace Stanback. A UCLA transfer, Stanback leads UNLV in scoring with 14.6 points a game and is the Rebels go-to guy when they need a bucket. Their second leading scorer, and only other player in double digits at 12.1 points per game is junior pointman Oscar Bellfield. Bellfield is the teams leading dime dropper as well, dishing out 4.1 assists per contest.

Rounding out the Rebels starting five is sophomore guard Anthony Marshall. Marshall may be the most athletic guy on the team and has shown flashes of brilliance so far this season. He has hed to find a consistent shooting touch but if he ever gets locked in that will make this UNLV team that much more dangerous.

Arguably the Rebels best player talentwise is star guard, and Memphis transfer, Tre’Von Willis. Willis missed the first two games of the season serving a suspension for a misdemeanor domestic battery charges in which he pled no contest, and has came off the bench in the seven games since. Willis carried the Rebels through most of last season, earning first-team all-Mountain West conference honors. Willis is still getting 24.6 minutes off the bench and is the team’s third leading scorer at this point in the season, with 9.6 points a game.

UNLV implements a non-stop pressure defense that ESPN broadcaster Dave Fleming referred to as “organized chaos” during the Rebels win over Virginia Tech in the 76 Classic. After the Rebels dispatched of Illinois State, coach Tim Jankovich had this to say: “They don’t let you run anything, and they disrupt everything. It’s got to be the best pressure defense in the country. I can’t imagine anyone does it any better.”

UNLV has only two seniors but they are a veteran group and one that is intact from last season – a rarity in college hoops these days. Rick Pitino and his Cards will have their hands full on Saturday, but I expect them to come away with a victory, keeping their record unblemished.

Louisville 64, UNLV 60