Aztecs prepare to face red hot UNLV Runnin’ Rebels

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Credit: Don De Mars

The San Diego State Aztecs are set to play their second to last game of the regular season when they travel to Las Vegas to play the UNLV Rebels. SDSU comes into the contest winners of two straight.

The Rebels are arguably the hottest team in the league right now, having won nine of their last ten games. This game will have heavy postseason implications. 

The Mountain West Tournament begins March 13. The top five seeds earn first-round byes. SDSU currently is third with an 11-5 conference record. UNLV and Nevada are just a half-game back at 10-5. A hot finish by sixth-place New Mexico (9-6) could force the loser of Tuesday’s contest into the play-in games in the conference tournament. 

General Observations

UNLV is playing the best basketball they have played as a program in a long time. They have no chance of getting an at-large bid to the tournament, but they seem primed to make a run for the auto-bid given to the conference tournament champion. 

The Rebels play an incredibly slow tempo on both sides of the floor. They also take fewer threes than most teams and hit them at a lesser clip than an average team. 

On the season they have been a poor defensive rebounding team. The Rebels have been better at it recently but can still have lapses in their execution from time to time. 

Guarding UNLV

The Rebels play a two-big system. Aztec fans may think it looks somewhat familiar when they see two players executing duck-ins because it is what SDSU did last season. 

It also means lots of Horns sets and high-low actions. A Horns set involves having a big man stand on each elbow, with wing players in the corners. It flows into many actions well and brings the advantage of keeping defenders farther from the rim. UNLV runs multiple actions out of Horns sets, including this simple stagger screen. 

The Aztecs will likely play a switching defense against most of the Rebel tactics. It should work to disrupt their actions. The trick will be helping down low if UNLV tries to take advantage of a big-small mismatch. 

If the defense is fronting the post too aggressively, UNLV players will get the ball to the free throw line, and throw it to the low post player, who will usually have an easy layup by that point. 

This may not be a problem because the Aztecs do not front the post often. If it does happen, the defender at the top of the key will need to play big and make the entry pass hard. 

While the Rebels do not push the ball in transition often, they tend to run drag screens during the secondary break. In the example below, Whaley slips the drag screen and gets an easy dunk behind a scrambling defense. 

Switching defenses are especially susceptible to drag screens, so SDSU will need to be aware of the situation and not switch screens in transition. Play a drop coverage, give up the mid-range jumper, and live with the results. 

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Attacking UNLV

The key for SDSU in every game is getting Jaedon LeDee going. That means knowing where the double team is coming from when he catches the ball. 

The Rebels send their double team from the weakside player closest to the baseline.

The advantage that gives them is that it’s hard for the post player to see it coming, making turnovers more likely. In the clip above, Utah State does a great job of sending a cutter to occupy defenders and open up a passing lane to the perimeter. Jay Pal is uniquely well-suited to make that cut. Aztec shooters have struggled lately. Hitting open shots will be crucial. 

UNLV also attacks passes to the middle of the floor. They jump behind players to swipe at the ball and get fast breaks. 

A fundamental the Aztecs will want to emphasize in practice is taking a step out to receive those passes. Move towards the ball rather than waiting for it. If the ball is secured, they can punish UNLV for attempting that jump because the defender will be out of position, and everyone else will need to scramble. 

Play to watch for

Spain Pick and Roll

UNLV loves to run Spain Pick and Roll when both of the Boone Brothers are on the floor. Their combination of inside and outside dominance makes the duo uniquely suited for the action. Communicating the back screen is key to stopping a Spain Pick and Roll. 

Players to watch

Kalib Boone, #10, 12.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists

Boone hasn’t gotten much attention this season, in large part due to big men in the conference taking most of the spotlight. Make no mistake, though, he is an all-conference caliber player. His footwork in the post as well as on the drive is fantastic, and he is an above average defender as well. The Aztecs did a good job to limit his shot attempts in the first game, because when puts a shot up, odds are it’s going in. 

Dedan Thomas, #11, 12.9 points, 3.0 rebounds, 5.4 assists

Thomas, as a player who was supposed to be a high school senior this season, is already one of the better point guards in the league. He’s only gotten better since the first matchup against SDSU when he had thirteen points and five assists. He can struggle with efficiency from time to time, and it will be the goal of Darrion Trammell and Lamont Butler to ensure it happens again this time around. 

Luis Rodriguez, #15, 11.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists

Rodriguez is a classic microwave scorer. He can come out and hit multiple shots from deep in a row, or he can shoot his team out of the game. Even when his offense is not clicking, he is a disruptive defender. The Aztecs will need to know where he is to prevent the fast-break dunks that result from his steals. 


Aggression toward the hoop. Both the Aztecs and the Rebels excel at defending jump shots , sitting at 80th and 83rd percentiles, respectively. If either team can break through, that would help them immensely. UNLV has had more suspect defense at the rim this season. It will be imperative for the Aztecs to be aggressive and not settle for jump shots, only taking them once they’ve broken the defense by attacking the rim first. 

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