San Diego State provides measuring stick for UNLV basketball – Las Vegas Review-Journal

UNLV opens Mountain West basketball play Saturday against rival San Diego State at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Translation: It’s prove-it time for the Rebels.

Kevin Kruger, in his first season as UNLV’s coach, brings an 8-5 team into league play.

It’s also one that has gone 8-0 against teams outside the Kenpom Top 100 and 0-5 against those within it. San Diego State (8-3) is 43rd, second in the conference to preseason favorite Colorado State (34th). UNLV is 126th.

One game certainly doesn’t make for a conference season. Not even close. But it could set a tone for UNLV.

“This is what the nonconference prepared us for as best we could,” Kruger said. “Teams like San Diego State — someone who has carried the torch in this conference for a long time and is always competing in March. When you think San Diego State, you think toughness and competitors.”

Conference play most often means a coach thinning his rotation to eight or so players, and that’s close to what Kruger has already employed with a roster that includes 10 new faces. Nine players average at least 12.5 minutes.

He plays those who produce and hasn’t paused to sit some of his best when they don’t.

Not a surprise: Bryce Hamilton leads UNLV in scoring with an 18.6 average. But more important lately, forward Donovan Williams has emerged as a secondary option, getting to the rim far more frequently and averaging 12.5 points in the process.

Potential issue: Freely attacking the paint and finding success against Hartford and Omaha is one thing. But doing so against San Diego State is a whole other issue.

“I know they’re a tough team that battles hard and competes relentlessly until the end,” UNLV forward Royce Hamm Jr. said. “But I like hard-fought, physical games. Definitely going to be that type of game. We’ll have to see who throws the first punch.”

Kruger’s main hope, besides a victory: That his team plays a full 40 minutes. That it understands the importance of being locked in and competing. Put it all out there. Fight the entire way. Play for each other.

“We got no chance if we don’t,” Kruger said.

History suggests the Rebels are in for a battle: San Diego State is 11-1 in its past 12 games against UNLV at the Thomas & Mack. Since the 2008-09 season, no Division I team has more road wins (16) against an opponent than the Aztecs have against the Rebels.

But there is also this: The game will be televised nationally on CBS. Since 2010, San Diego State is 4-13 on that network and has lost six of its past seven.

There aren’t many secrets when it comes to this one: San Diego State is a top 10 defensive team nationally, allowing an average of 58.5 points. While the Rebels have scored at a 71.5 clip, they’ve still struggled mightily at times making shots.

So have the Aztecs. The Rebels are shooting 43 percent from the field and 32 percent on 3s. San Diego State shoots 43 percent and 33 percent on 3s.

Grind it out, folks. Which side executes the best in those final five grueling minutes might decide the outcome.

“UNLV is very talented,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said. “Bryce Hamilton might be one of the top 10 or 12 scorers in the country. Sometimes you can play great defense on him, and he’s still going to put it into the basket.

“They’re finding their way. They have a lot of new pieces. They’re making adjustments. Kevin has done a good job. They seem to have gotten into a rhythm.They’re going to be a real challenge for us.”

First team to 60 wins?

Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at or 702-383-4618. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.