SAN DIEGO – Ten days ago it appeared it was about time to start making plans for an NIT or CBI postseason birth for the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels.
After an impressive road victory at Fresno State to start Mountain West play, the Rebels suffered surprising back-to-back home losses to Air Force and Nevada.
But the future looks a little brighter for UNLV (11-6, 2-2) following a road upset of defending conference champion New Mexico on Wednesday night. And the Rebels could find themselves right back in the thick of the Mountain West title hunt with a victory Saturday afternoon at No. 10 San Diego State (15-1, 4-0) at sold-out Viejas Arena (CBS Sports Network, 3 p.m. PT).
Of course, the would mean Dave Rice’s squad would have to accomplish something that hasn’t been done in almost 23 years … defeat a Top 10 ranked team on the road.
Yep, you have to go all the way back to Feb. 10, 1991 for the last time UNLV took down a Top 10 team on the road. That was when Jerry Tarkanian’s eventual national champions scored a memorable 112-105 victory over No. 2 Arkansas.
(STORY CONTINUES BELOW)
It won’t be easy. Steve Fisher’s Aztecs attracted national attention two weeks ago after dismantling a Kansas team that has national championship potential, not to mention possibly the first two picks of next June’s NBA Draft, 61-57, in a game that really wasn’t close.
Then toss in the fact the Aztecs (15-1, 4-0) are in the midst of the second-longest winning streak in school history –14 games – and combine that with the quick turnaround for the Rebels have to make after Wednesday night’s emotional win and you can understand why San Diego State opened as a 9-point favorites at the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino Superbook.
Still, the Rebels have played some of their best basketball away from the Thomas & Mack Center this season, compiling a 5-1 mark with the only loss a hard-fought 63-58 loss at unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Arizona, a game the Rebels actually led late in the second half. And UNLV handed San Diego State its only home loss last season, 82-75.
“Definitely it’s a big thing (to have won at San Diego last year),” guard Bryce Dejean-Jones said. “But we know they know that too. They’re going to come out even more intense to try and protect their home court. We’ll have to come out and match their intensity if not be even more intense on both ends of the court the whole game.”
“It gives us confidence,” Rice said. “Last year is last year and this year is this year. But at the same time, we know it can be done.”
The Aztecs are led by senior guard Xavier Thames, who is averaging 16.9 points and is shooting 47.9 percent from 3-point range, and former Findlay Prep star Winston Shepard, who is averaging 13.5points and 4.7 rebounds. Both are also two of the nation’s best on-ball defenders, a major reason why San Diego State ranks first nationally in field goal percentage defense (.358), second in scoring defense (55.9) and sixth in 3-point field goal percentage defense (.268).
“They’re terrific,” Rice said. “They’re as good as any team in the country defensively.”
If the Rebels are to pull their second straight road upset, they may want to get an early lead. San Diego State has won an astounding 107 consecutive games when leading with five minutes to go.
Hear more what Rice has to say about the game in the VIDEO below.