Bench, rebounding big keys at Colorado State

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — After an intense and emotionally draining 82-75 victory at 15th-ranked San Diego State on Wednesday night, the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels find themselves back on the road Saturday to play a veteran and physical Colorado State team that many consider a sleeper to win the Mountain West title.

Coach Larry Eustachy’s Rams (14-3, 1-1), who own impressive wins at Washington and over UTEP, have won a school-record 23 straight home games including a 79-40 dismantling of Air Force on Wednesday night.

Yes, the same Air Force that narrowly lost at UNLV, 76-71, in overtime four nights earlier.

The 39-point margin of victory was the largest in school history against a Mountain West opponent by the Rams, who also toyed with Virginia Tech during a 88-52 victory in the title game of the Continental Tire Classic at the Orleans Arena last month.

UNLV (15-3, 2-1) hasn’t played well in Fort Collins in recent years and were upset by the Rams, 66-59, last season at Moby Arena.

A loss to this Colorado State squad, however, wouldn’t be an upset. The Rams are 3-point favorites.

Led by the duo of muscular 6-foot-10 Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson and 6-5 senior forward Pierce Hornung, Colorado State presents a much different challenge for the Rebels than the quicker and more athletic Aztecs did on Wednesday night.

The Rams are No.1 in the nation in rebounding margin (plus-14.5) with Hornung (10.3) and Iverson (8.9) leading the way.

“They’re the best rebounding team in the country,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “I think they have over 100 more offensive rebounds than their opponents this year. Pierce Hornung and Colton Iverson are the best rebounding duo in the country if you go by the numbers. So it will be a physical challenge for us in this game. We’ve got to block out. We’ve made an emphasis on that all year, particularly in the last few days. … It’s a huge key for us in this game.”

Rebounding proved to be a big advantage for the Rebels in their upset of San Diego State. UNLV finished with a 43-31 edge on the boards. Point guard Anthony Marshall led the way with eight, including seven on the defensive end, while Mike Moser added seven in just 18 minutes. The Rebels rank a very respectable 11th out of 345 Division I teams with a plus-8.8 rebound margin.

Iverson, who leads the Rams with a 14.9 scoring average, at times looks and plays bigger than his listed size of 6-10 and 261 pounds. Many teams have been forced to double him in the post, and that has opened things up on the perimeter for a talented array of 3-point shooters including senior guards Wes Eikmeier and Dorian Green.

A big key for UNLV will be if wiry 6-9 forward Khem Birch and 6-8, 245-pound senior Quintrell Thomas can hold their ground with Iverson alone in the post.

Another thing to keep an eye on for the Rebels will be fatigue. The milestone win at San Diego State was a physical and emotional one. Combine that with travel back to Las Vegas on Thursday afternoon and another flight to Denver on Friday afternoon and it will be interesting to see what the Rebels have left in the tank.

“Certainly you are always concerned with this type of a travel week, and how physical the game will be and all of the emotions,” Rice said. “But that’s why we have 11 available scholarship players. We’re excited that we have a deep bench. We’ll find a rotation that works. I have a lot of confidence in our guys.”

A road win over the Rams would make UNLV the clear-cut frontrunner for the Mountain West championship. The Rebels would be 3-1 overall with arguably their three toughest road games – New Mexico, San Diego State and the Rams – already in the rear view mirror.

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