Arizona had to make some accommodations if it wanted to play this weekend. The Wildcats had already been on an 11-day hiatus that head coach Adia Barnes was unhappy with, but she felt she had to do it in order to go to a strong tournament in the Bahamas.
“I do the scheduling and that’s not what I wanted, but I could not fill a game,” Barnes said. “Because that tournament’s right before Thanksgiving, so it’s really tough. And no one’s gonna play you that next week here because everybody’s in Thanksgiving tournaments. So it was a hard schedule, but I wanted to go to that tournament because I thought the Bahamas is good.”
Canceling a game after the long layoff was definitely not something she wanted to do. So, Barnes had to agree to push the game back by 3 hours so UNLV could keep the game from overlapping with the MWC football championship. What should the Wildcats expect once tip-off finally rolls around?
“We’re playing a really good team on Saturday in Vegas,” Barnes said. “They’re aggressive and it’s gonna be a good test for us on the road. And then playing Texas and San Diego. We have a tough little stretch. So I’m curious to see how we’re gonna bounce back and how we’re gonna respond after that break because I don’t know. We’re a young team, so I really don’t know what to expect all the time.”
The Lady Rebels aren’t a young team. In fact, they’re an experienced team that has to be confident going into this matchup with a 7-0 record. All six players who have made starts this season are upperclassmen and grad students.
There will also be some familiarity with Arizona. Six players on this year’s team were on the roster when UNLV lost to the Wildcats in the 2021-22 NCAA Tournament first round at McKale Center. That includes leading scorer Desi-Rae Young and Tucson native Alyssa Brown.
Young’s 16.9 points per game are second in the Mountain West this season. Teammate Alyssa Durazo-Frescas, who was also on that 2021-22 roster, comes in 10th with 13.6 PPG. Along with Kiara Jackson—a fourth player who was on the court when the two teams last played—the pair forms a trio of contributors who score in double digits. Jackson’s 12.4 PPG puts her 14th in the MWC and third on the team.
It won’t be enough to just limit Young’s offense, though. The 6-foot-1 center averages a double-double with exactly 10.0 rebounds. That places her second in the MWC for that statistic, as well.
To Arizona’s advantage, it has plenty of size up front. Young should be challenged by a starting lineup featuring a pair of 6-foot-4 youngsters in Breya Cunningham and Maya Nnaji and a 6-foot-2 vet in Esmery Martinez.
The Rebels’ record has done enough to impress some Associated Press voters. UNLV is garnering nine points in this week’s poll to put it sixth on the “others receiving votes” list. Not all undefeated records are made the same, though. How impressive is this one?
The voters in the WBCA coaches poll are actually more impressed by a one-loss Arizona team than an undefeated UNLV team. The Wildcats earned 19 points in that poll to land sixth on its ORV list. UNLV got enough votes to earn 12 points, good enough to land ninth among those receiving votes but outside the top 25.
As for the computer number-crunchers, NET rankings are not yet available for this season, but other rating systems are producing ratings. Massey has the Rebels ranked No. 46. The problem for them is that the Wildcats are ranked No. 27.
Her Hoop Stats is also producing its ratings. The stats service is much more impressed by the Lady Rebels than the Massey ratings. HHS ratings place UNLV 19th in Division I compared to Arizona’s No. 56.
There is something both rating systems agree on, though. This factor is keeping UNLV out of the Top 25: strength of schedule.
A 7-0 record is wonderful, but when it’s against weak competition, it’s unlikely to impress a more objective observer. That’s what it comes down to for the Rebels when the numbers are thrown into a computer.
UA and UNLV have three opponents in common. HHS rates San Diego, NAU, and LMU as the weakest three opponents the Wildcats have played. UNLV also played the trio, but San Diego and NAU are ranked second and third strongest on its schedule. LMU is its fifth-toughest opponent.
Among Arizona’s opponents, only LMU ranks outside the top 200 teams according to HHS. In contrast, UNLV has played four teams that HHS places outside the top 200. That is over half of its schedule. None of UNLV’s opponents are ranked in the top 150 by HHS while UA has played four such teams with one in the top 50.
Why is this happening? Because UNLV’s opponents are only winning 45.5 percent of their games. Those opponents’ opponents are only winning 50.2 percent of their games.
Massey shows a similar pattern. In the Massey Ratings, Arizona’s strength of schedule is ranked 78th. UNLV sits at 183.
So what do the computers think will happen? That’s where the conflict comes in.
HHS thinks UNLV wins at home or on a neutral court, but Arizona wins in McKale Center. Massey thinks Arizona wins no matter where the game is played.
In Thomas & Mack Arena, the Massey Rating gives the Wildcats a win probability of 64 percent with the most likely final score of 71-65. HHS has UNLV with a win probability of 83.6 percent and a score of 77.9 to 65.4.
That’s why they play the games.
Arizona Wildcats (6-1, 0-0 Pac-12) @ UNLV Lady Rebels (7-0, 0-0 MWC)
When: Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023 at 6 p.m. MST
Where: Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nev.
TV/Streaming: Mountain West Network
Stats: UNLV Live Stats