Men’s Hoops: Runnin’ Utes face toughy UNLV in Vegas before MWC Tourney

By and

The madness that is March in college basketball will be cranked up an extra notch for the Runnin’ Utes this weekend. All they need to do is win to make it all work out in their favor.

That’s easier said than done considering the who and the where involved.

Utah (16-12, 7-8 MWC) is headed to the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nev. to take on the UNLV Rebels (22-7, 11-4 MWC). As if going into the site of next week’s MWC Tournament and facing a team that hasn’t lost at home in 11 games wasn’t hard enough, UNLV has two very good reasons to be motivated for a win Saturday afternoon, despite already locking up the No. 2 seed at next week’s conference tournament:

Utah is the only MWC team the Rebels have yet to beat this year and getting a win against a possession-oriented team is something UNLV has struggled with this season.

Air Force and Utah are the two teams that use a deliberate offensive pace to limit possessions and complement their hard-nosed defenses. The Rebels have already lost to both teams, and nearly lost to Air Force again Feb. 12 before walking away with a 58-51 win.

The difference in Saturday’s game against Utah might not have so much to do with what UNLV does at home as what the Utes have been unable to do on the road. Despite an impressive come-from-behind win against Air Force and a win over the MWC door mat — Colorado State — Utah has been an unimpressive 2-5 on the road in conference play this year. The Utes, however, have yet to be blown out either.

In their five road losses, the Utes have lost by an average of eight points, including the eight and 10 point losses that came in overtime to San Diego State and New Mexico, respectively.

Utah head coach Jim Boylen has talked a lot about his team’s growth over his first year. For that growth to mean something, Utah needs to find a way to gut out a win on the road. To do that in the arena they hope to spend a few days in next weekend, a win against UNLV would provide a huge boost to Utah’s confidence.

A win would also guarantee the Utes the No. 5 seed at the MWC tournament most likely pit them against San Diego State.

For Ute fans, it will be interesting to see what kind of carry-over forward Shaun Green takes from his 20 point, nine rebound performance against Colorado State on Tuesday. Green’s focus this season has been almost purely on defense, but a big man that extends the defense would create more operating room for Luke Nevill down below and lanes for Luka Drca, Carlon Brown and Johnnie Bryant to drive through.

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