Three games into the 2018-19 season, UNLV’s basketball team has seen its share of highs and lows. With two wins in their first three games isn’t horrible, but an Opening Night loss to Loyala Marymount did a ton to set back any optimism Vegas fans may have maintained this offseason.

Some of the criticism is warranted, and some not. In Year Three under head coach Marvin Menzies, the Rebels are looking for another jump. A slow start hasn’t helped but the team seems to be making progress. Sin City Sports Mockery’s Alex Tarkanian breaks down the first three-game stretch of the young season for the Runnin’ Rebels.

Bad Defense + Bad Offense = Bad Basketball!

That sums up the Rebels game against Loyola Marymount as UNLV lost a rare home opener, 61-50. The Rebels played pretty good defense the first half and that helped the Rebels outscore the Lions 25-18 at halftime. However, the Rebels seemed to forget that it was a 40-minute game. They came out flat in the second half, continued to fail to execute offensively, and their defense was non-existent.

The Rebels turned the ball over 24 times and shot only 42 percent from the field. This helped the Lions score 43 second-half points and beat the Rebels decisively. Offensively, the Rebels lacked cohesion as there was very little ball movement, forced drives and bad shots. The Lions clearly played with more heart and intensity. If there was a loose ball or long rebound to be had it went to LMU.

In short summary, the Lions wanted to win the game more than the Rebels. They played harder, made better adjustments, and played better defense than the Rebels. The result was a bad game for the Rebels who suffered a home opener loss for only the fifth time in the last 45 years. However, it is the second time in the last three years.

In order to take a good shot, you have to break the defense down.

An opponent’s defense is at its best when it is set up in a half-court game. The offense needs to cause the defense to breakdown in order to get easy shots. One of the best ways to get easy shots is to have the offense beat the defense down the floor and take your shot before your opponent sets up their defense.

In order to do this, you must be a “running” team. You must force turnovers, dominate the rebounds, and transition quickly from defense to offense after your opponents score. Unfortunately, UNLV failed in all three areas against LMU. They should have changed the name on their jerseys from “Runnin’ Rebels” to “Walkin’ Rebels.”

It seemed like the Rebels were always in a half-court game against the Lions. They walked the ball up the court every time. They only forced 12 turnovers for the game (a meager four in the second half). This prevented the Rebels to getting easy baskets in transition. Ironically, it was the Rebels 24 offensive turnovers that led to a number of easy baskets for LMU.

If you are not able to get into a running game and forced to play in a half-court game, it is important to reverse the ball from one side of the court to the other a number of times in order to get the defense moving and often out of position. This allows better opportunity to drive or find a cutter to the basket. However, against LMU, the Rebels offense seemed out of sync and not really having a purpose. More times or not they looked to drive off of one or two passes and no ball reversals. This meant they were attacking the basket or taking shots when the defense was at its strongest. This led to a lot of bad shots and unforced turnovers.

Bad offense usually leads to bad defense

If your offense takes bad shots it usually leads to long rebounds and fast break opportunities for your opponent. In addition, if you turn the ball over it usually means a fast break opportunity for your opponent. Thus, your defense will look bad. Against LMU, the Rebels took too many bad shots and turn the ball over way too many times. The result was very predictable. It was a bad game and an embarrassing loss.

Good Offense + Good Defense = Good Basketball

The good news is the Rebels seemed to learn their lesson from the LMU loss. UNLV played much better against both UC Riverside and University of Oakland. Their offense had much better ball movement which predictably led to easier shots. Against UC-Riverside the Rebels shot 52 percent from the field and only turned the ball over 11 times. Rebels blew out the Highlanders, 72-51.

The brightest spot from the Rebels came from their bench which outscored the starters 41-31. Sophomore Tervel Beck and freshman Bryce Hamilton led the Rebels in scoring 11 and 14 points, respectively.

The Rebels were even better against University of Oakland. This was the first time all season where it looked like UNLV was clicking, both offensively and defensively, as they beat Grizzlies handedly, 74-61. The Rebels found their missing runnin’ game. By limiting the Grizzlies to 37 percent shooting and dominating the rebound advantage, UNLV was able to get out in transition and execute their secondary break for several easy baskets.

Point guards Noah Robotham and Amauri Hardy both played key roles in igniting the runnin’ game by executing the Rebels’ secondary break (quick-hitting plays out of transition). Finally, the Rebels half court offense was also clicking on all cylinders. They had excellent spacing and ball movement. The Rebels had several back-door cuts for layups and penetrated almost at will.

On the defensive end, the Rebels may have had their best performance under the Menzies era. The Rebels pressured the ball and contained the dribble. The Rebels were able to challenge just about every shot Oakland put up. Several times the Grizzlies had to rush shots in order to avoid a shot clock violation. UNLV would have four players score in double digits, led by Shakur Juiston’s 18 points and 10 rebounds, Chekh Diong’s and Amauri Hardy 12 points a piece and Kris Clyburn 10 points.

Now it does help that the Rebels ran into two bad teams. There is only one combined win between UC Riverside (0-3) and Oakland (1-3). LMU, on the other hand, beat Georgetown, 65-52, Friday and are now 5-0, so the LMU loss may have been to an above average team. However, playing two inferior teams gave the rebels the opportunity to get into offense and defensive rhythm as well as building confidence. Statistically the Rebels have yet to have an opponent shoot over 38 percent from the field. They need to improve their perimeter shooting as they are only shooting 26 percent in the first three games.

The path does get tougher. The Rebels host University of Pacific, who is 3-1, tonight. Pacfici’s only loss is to the sixth-ranked Nevada-Reno. Southern Utah is currently undefeated at 3-0 and has a whole week to prepare for their game against the Rebels. The following week Valparaiso and University of Cincinnati will visit the Thomas and Mac and then the Rebels will go on the road for the first time against Illinois.

All three teams are predicted to be in the NCAA tournament come March. We will get a good idea just how good the Rebels can be within the next couple of weeks.