Without question, Tuesday night will be a historic night for Kentucky basketball—just not the kind of historic that Kentucky is used to. It is historic not because of championship banners, but because the Kentucky Wildcats will get the opportunity to play at Memorial Coliseum for the first time since 1976, a venue where the ‘Cats own an unbelievable 306-38 record.
The night also marks the first time that Kentucky will participate in the NIT since 1979. The Wildcats will be playing in their eighth NIT and have come away with the title four times.
Kentucky begins their journey for a fifth title against the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels of the Mountain West conference. Just as the ‘Cats did, the Rebels struggled down the stretch. They have lost three of their last four, including a loss at home to San Diego State in the first round of the Mountain West tournament.
Overall, the Rebels finished with a 21-10 record, 9-7 in conference, and have victories over four NCAA tournament teams (Louisville, Arizona, Utah, BYU). The most impressive is a 56-55 win over Louisville at Freedom Hall without their leading scorer Wink Adams. Kentucky enters the NIT with only three wins over NCAA tournament opponents (West Virginia, Tennessee 2X).
The Rebels are coached by Lon Kruger, who formerly coached at the University of Florida, so he is familiar with the SEC atmosphere. He is in his fifth year at UNLV after a short stint as head coach of the Atlanta Hawks. In those five seasons he has compiled a 112-52 record, and the Rebels are an impressive 78-25 in the last three years.
He has led them to the NCAA tournament twice, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2007. This marks the first time they have played in the NIT since Kruger’s first year in Vegas.
When Billy Gillispie was asked about the Runnin’ Rebels and their style of play, he compared them to Auburn, a team that Kentucky defeated 73-64 at Rupp Arena. The Rebels are extremely athletic and love to spread the floor with perimeter guys who can shoot it from deep.
Leading their perimeter attack is the 6’0” senior guard Wink Adams. Adams is a four-year starter at UNLV and has compiled over 1,800 points in his career. His scoring is down a bit from a year ago, but he is still averaging 14.3 points, which leads the team.
Adams entered his senior year with 165 career three-pointers and had shot 35 percent from deep. However, this season he has struggled from beyond the arc, shooting a career-low 26 percent.
Adams is a shoot-first guard, but he does much more than that for the Rebels. Despite his lack of size, he ranks fourth on the team in rebounding with just over four a game. He is also second on the team in steals with 1.3 and ranks third in assists with 2.8.
Sophomore Tre’Von Willis (6’4”, guard) and senior guard René Rougeau (6’6”, guard) are the only other two players averaging double figures, with 11.7 and 11.1 points per game respectively. Rougeau also leads the Rebels in rebounds (6.8), blocks (2.1), and steals (1.5). His 2.1 blocks per game ranks second in the MWC. His 56 percent shooting from the floor ranks third in the conference.
At 6’7″, forward Joe Darger is usually the Rebels’ biggest man on the court. Despite this, Darger is much more comfortable beyond the arc than he is in the post. Of his 241 field goal attempts, 202 of them have been from deep. He is shooting 37 percent from three and is fourth on the team in scoring with 9.2 points per game.
Kentucky’s most glaring weaknesses on defense this season have been their inability to contain penetration and defend the three. This is exactly what UNLV wants to do. Their entire offense revolves around the drive and kick. Look for Adams, Willis, and freshman guard Oscar Bellfield to get in the lane and find open shooters like Darger. The Rebels also bring two three-point specialists off the bench in Kendall Wallace and Mareceo Rutledge
However, on the other end they should have no answer for Patrick Patterson. The Rebels simply do not have the length or the strength inside to defend Patterson down low. Look for them to send multiple guys at him when he gets the ball in the post, but he should have no problem seeing over top and finding an open man. Remember against Auburn, Patterson finished with 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting and 18 rebounds.
Often teams lack motivation in the first and second round of the NIT. Will the ‘Cats and the Rebels be focused and ready to play? Neither Kentucky nor UNLV wants to end their season on a bad note, and losing in the first round of the NIT would only add insult to injury, as both teams really struggled down the stretch.
Motivation isn’t going to be the problem; defense is going to be the problem. Both offenses’ strengths play directly on the other team’s defensive weaknesses. The team that defends better should move on to the second round.