Just like three years ago, the Arizona Wildcats have a big non-conference home game on the night of the New Mexico Bowl.
With the UNLV Runnin' Rebels coming to town, we give our thoughts on how Saturday night's affair will play out. Let us know what you think will happen!
Gabe Encinas: This could be a huge trap game for Arizona at home if they're not careful. Being on winter break, the energy level within McKale will be at an all-time low. I feel like a lot of the Mountain West teams have made this a rivalry game with Arizona, and they come in with the huge underdog mentality and will go all out to knock off Arizona. I've watched UNLV quite a bit this season, and they're an intriguing team. Their loss at home to ASU might not be good for us either, the Rebels coming in angry, and the pressure of now having this young team beat UNLV just nights after ASU came back for the win.
I'm worried about what Stephen Zimmerman could do to Dusan Ristic on offense, but I'm hoping Ristic can respond with a few buckets of his own. With Zimmerman in, I wouldn't expect to see a whole lot of Chance Comanche either. We still don't know how long Elliott Pitts will be out for, and I wouldn't mind if Justin SImon got his minutes, although if the game is close I get a feeling Sean Miller will pull the plug early.
UNLV has a lot of explosive athletes, but outside of their top six guys, they don't have much going. Sophomore guard Patrick McCaw could go off, especially without the help of Pitts. Arizona's defense has been vulnerable to big-time scorers, and this could be a 25+ point night for McCaw.
If Arizona is going to win it's going to be due to the trio of Ryan Anderson, Allonzo Trier and Gabe York leading the way. Those three have proved to be the go-to scorers for this streak to continue.
Final Score: 69-62 Arizona
Brandon Hill: This has become a nice little Western rivalry. UNLV beat Arizona last year and almost won in McKale in 2013, when on both occasions the Wildcats were ranked in the top 3 and the Rebels were unranked. Head coach Dave Rice (who played for Jerry Tarkanian and was on the ‘89-'90 NCAA Championship team, so he knows the glory days there) has started to bring big time recruits to Vegas, notably Zimmerman, and in each of the last three years has brought in a top 20 recruiting class (per ESPN). So UNLV is certainly on the rise and coming for that crown of Best in the West.
This year UNLV has beaten ranked Oregon and Indiana and lost narrowly to two good teams in UCLA and Wichita State. So they are certainly capable of beating anyone on a given night. They're young (only three of nine players averaging double figure minutes are upperclassmen; by contrast Arizona has six of nine) but talented. I think that experience and leadership will carry the Cats to a win, though it will be a fight. As Gabe points out, there is a bit of consternation with a go-to scorer (McCaw has four 20+ point games so far) but Arizona counters with a hot scorer of its own in Allonzo Trier (so it's not all about upperclassmen), who is really starting to become the player Arizona expected (McDonald's All-American) and desperately needs (many pundits considered Trier the premiere scorer among incoming 2015 recruits. Trier, who averaged 11.6 points per game in Arizona's first five contests, has bumped that up to 14.8 in the last five. I think Trier and Gabe York are becoming one of the best scoring backcourt duos in the country, becoming a "pick your poison" equation, and will give Arizona scoring punch they've lacked in recent years on the perimeter to match their stifling defense.
A final note: prized 2016 recruit Josh Jackson (and reported Michigan State lean) will be at the game on an official visit so any style points Arizona can muster couldn't hurt. After losing Andrew Jones to Texas this weekend, Jackson becomes the last blue chip recruit Sean Miller has inroads on.
Final Score: 75-64 Arizona
Ryan Kelapire: The last two matchups against UNLV have been extremely close games and we know that the Rebels actually got the win last season. This year, UNLV is better and Arizona is a bit worse, so I'd figure this game to be equally as close. Yes, the students won't be at McKale Center so the atmosphere might not be as hectic as usual, but it's just so hard for opponents to come into Tucson and come away with a win. For that reason, I say Arizona wins in a close one 78-73.
Alec Sills-Trausch: UNLV is not a particularly good offensive team and their defense is much worse than Arizona's, at least statistically per Ken Pomeroy. We saw the offensive woes against Arizona State as they went seven-odd minutes down the stretch without putting the ball through the hoop. I guess we also saw their lack of defense by giving up a double digit halftime lead. However, we see this sick game all the time as teams lose to ASU ... and then get super pumped up to play us ... and then the Cats decide tonight's not the time to play their best. (Hopefully this isn't one of those occasions.)
UNLV's signature win on the season is against then-15th ranked Oregon when they had five players score in double figures. Rarely does any team do that against Arizona. In addition, since that victory, the Runnin' Rebels have been trending in the wrong direction, losing two out of their last three to Wichita State and ASU. Another area to point out is UNLV has only played two three road games this season, the aforementioned Wichita State and, UC Riverside and at Chaminade in Hawaii. Not to bash those schools' fans, but even without a full capacity Zona Zoo, McKale is in another Galaxy (far, far away) compared to those mid-majors.
Arizona, on the other hand, has been on fire since the second half of Gonzaga. Speaking of second halfs, Arizona has not let an opposing team shoot better than 36% after half time in the last four games. That is an absolute lockdown mentality on defense (and maybe a little of Sean Miller inspiration).
Wrapping up, I feel Arizona's defense, offensive consistency, and depth will be too much for the untested Runnin' Rebels. The McKale streak reaches 46 as Sean Miller & Co. win 68-59.
Jason Bartel: I gave my prediction in my Q&A with Mountain West Connection. 82-69 Cats.