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Game Preview: Cincinnati Bearcats at UNLV Runnin’ Rebels

Two teams that value defense will clash in Las Vegas on Saturday.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina Central at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Remember that brief moment in time when some were convinced that Mick Cronin was going to cut ties with the Cincinnati Bearcats so he could coach the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels?

Me neither.

Anyways, the Bearcats and Rebels will be facing off in a game of hoops on Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. Perhaps this game will further confirm that Cronin made the right choice.

Right now, the Bearcats are a team anyone would want to coach. With a 105-49 triumph over Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Tuesday, UC earned its sixth-straight win and improved to 6-1 on the season. Their only loss was to Ohio State on opening night and the Buckeyes are currently ranked 16th in the country. It’s a game the Bearcats should have won, but it isn’t a major blemish on the record overall.

That brings us to this game, which is probably the most difficult one since that Ohio State matchup. That’s mainly because its the first true road test for these Bearcats, who went 9-2 away from home a year ago.

Who are the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels?

Aside from failing to lure Cronin away, UNLV is actually a pretty fine basketball program. They’ve been to 20 NCAA Tournaments, four Final Fours and even won a national title in 1990. Head coach Marvin Menzies, who was brought in when UNLV missed on Cronin, is in the process of building the program back to that kind of success. After going 11-21 in his first season, the Rebels finished with 20 wins last year, marking their first 20-win campaign since the 2013-14 season.

What happened last year is becoming less and less relevant as the calendar flips to December, as team’s are already cementing new identities. In terms of record, UNLV is doing just fine. With a 4-2 mark, the Rebels are playing winning basketball most nights, although they were handed a 72-64 home loss to Valparaiso last time out. For a team that has yet to play a road game — or even a neutral one — two losses in six games isn’t a great sign. Further illustrating that is UNLV’s forgettable point production efficiency, as they rank 170th in the country in adjusted offense, according to KenPom, despite a fairly easy early slate. KenPom has the Rebels 335th in the nation in strength of schedule.

This will be a challenging game for the UC frontcourt, as UNLV will most certainly be trying to get their senior forward Shakur Juiston the ball as much as possible. The 6’7” double-double creator had 14 points and 19 rebounds against Valparaiso and is averaging 12.3 and 10.2 per game. With 37 minutes played in that game, he was the only Rebel to log more than 30 and he has a team-high usage rate of 24.7 percent. Juiston and the rest of the Rebels simply suffered from an ice-cold second half against Valparaiso, as they shot 29 percent from the floor to surrender a 35-31 halftime edge.

Defensive emulation

UNLV has a similar makeup to UC in that it puts more pressure on its defense to win games. While the Rebels are nowhere near as dominant as the Bearcats (17th in adjusted defense), they at least understand the defense-first lifestyle. They are allowing only 64.3 points per game, which ranks 50th in the country, and they are particularly good at guarding the perimeter, allowing foes to shoot just 36.4 percent from three.

UC has them beat in all phases, however, allowing the sixth-fewest points per game (55.9) and only 31 percent shooting from beyond the arc. One way UC is so effective at making teams miserable on offense is its ability to slow games to a crawl. Ranking 344th in the country in adjusted tempo, the Bearcats make all 40 minutes a slog and not every team is ready for that type of contest. Obviously beefing those numbers up with games against weaker teams has helped, but the Bearcats have a track record of playing great defense. The Rebels would like one as well.

Prediction Time!

This is not going to be a fun game to watch. While UC fans are used to games where scraping together buckets is a chore, that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable. With that written, UNLV may be better on defense than offense, but it has a long way to go to prove it can defend like the Bearcats. On their home floor, the Rebels will makes things tough on UC’s shooters, but with a more balanced offensive attack than expected — Trevon Scott’s scoring improvements make a big difference — the Bearcats will find enough weak points to come out on top. Cincinnati 63 UNLV 57