Can UNLV's Elijah Mitrou-Long make the difference against San Diego State?

Posted Friday, 21 February 2020 ‐ Las Vegas Sun

The last time UNLV played San Diego State, the Rebels came close enough to knocking off the nation’s last remaining undefeated team that it’s conceivable to think one player could have determined the outcome. Could that player be Elijah Mitrou-Long? The fifth-year senior played on Jan. 26, when SDSU came to the Thomas and Mack Center and edged the Rebels, 71-67, but it was his first game back from a thumb injury that had sidelined him for more than a month. Mitrou-Long played 19 minutes and made a minimal impact by scoring eight points on 2-of-4 shooting. Since that return Mitrou-Long has steadily taken on an increased role in the UNLV rotation, and he’s now playing so well that he could make the difference when the Rebels get their rematch at San Diego State on Saturday. In the last four games (three wins and an overtime loss), Mitrou-Long has played 28 minutes per game while averaging 11.5 points on 45.5-percent shooting. He has been so productive that when forward Donnie Tillman went out for the year with a knee injury three games ago, head coach T.J. Otzelberger countered by eschewing size for the sake of size and increasing Mitrou-Long’s playing time. The Rebels have embraced super-small lineups with four and five guards on the floor at the same time, and Mitrou-Long has been a key to making them work. In the two full games since UNLV committed to four-guard lineups, Mitrou-Long has played 30.5 minutes off the bench and produced 16.5 points and 3.5 assists per game while hitting five 3-pointers. In the last two games (wins over New Mexico and Colorado State), UNLV’s four-guard lineups have been markedly better with Mitrou-Long on the floor. Small lineups including the 6-foot-1 Mitrou-Long have a plus/minus rating of +15.0 per 40 minutes; four-guard lineups without him have struggled at -28.0 per 40. Mitrou-Long’s defense has been an important factor in allowing UNLV to play small-ball. Because he can defend up a position or two, the Rebels have been able to switch fluidly. His sticky fingers have come in handy, too — he clinched the win over New Mexico with a steal in the final seconds, and he added three more thefts against Colorado State. Mitrou-Long said his attention to defense has allowed him to find a rhythm since returning. “I’ve been locked in on defense and focusing on that, and just letting my offense flow,” Mitrou-Long said. When UNLV lost to San Diego State three weeks ago, the Rebels were only dabbling in four-guard lineups. Otzelberger went super-small for just 12:49, and SDSU handled the look well, outscoring UNLV 34-31 during that stretch. UNLV has turned the four-guard attack into a real weapon since then, and Otzelberger figures to employ it liberally on Saturday. If Mitrou-Long continues his strong play, that could be enough to power UNLV to a possible upset win. Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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