UNLV looking to finish strong against No. 4 San Diego State

Posted Saturday, 25 January 2020 ‐ Las Vegas Sun

When UNLV hosted San Diego State at the Thomas & Mack Center last year, Nick Blair had a prime opportunity to finish off the Aztecs with a game-winning 3-pointer. That shot missed, however, and UNLV suffered a painful 60-59 defeat. After Friday’s practice Blair said he doesn’t think about that shot much, but he does remember how UNLV went 0-3 against SDSU in 2018-19, including a season-ending loss in the Mountain West tournament. If the Rebels want to give themselves a chance to knock off a much better San Diego State team on Sunday — one that will enter the game with a perfect 20-0 record and ranked No. 4 in the country — they will have to finish. If it comes down to Blair making a potential game-winner on Sunday, UNLV would prefer he be closer to the basket this time around. It’s not that Blair isn’t capable of making a 3, it’s just that the senior forward has been automatic at finishing around the rim this season. Blair has converted 78.1 percent of his attempts near the basket according to Hoop-Math.com, making him UNLV’s most efficient finisher by a wide margin (Mbacke Diong is second at 68.6 percent). It’s an area in which the Rebels have struggled mightily, shooting 59.9 percent around the rim as a team (No. 181 nationally). In Wednesday’s loss at UNR, they made just 8-of-26. Blair said UNLV practices finishing and that focus is the key to converting inside. “Just reps, like anything else,” Blair said. “Here in practice we do different drills to go against contact and stuff like that. Even in practice [there are] certain situations where we’re going live, you bump into guys and have to finish. So just concentration.” Few teams protect the rim better than San Diego State, but the Aztecs do it mostly by limiting opportunity. According to Synergy Sports data, only 24.3 percent of opposing teams’ offensive possessions have ended around the rim, which is the lowest ratio in the country. When teams do manage to get to the basket against SDSU, they convert at a robust rate of 62.2 percent, which ranks the Aztecs’ defense just 269th. That means UNLV’s chances to score easy baskets will be rare, and the Rebels can’t afford to squander a single attempt. Donnie Tillman in particular will play a big role in that regard. Among UNLV players, only Diong gets to the rim more often than Tillman, as nearly 50 percent of his field-goal attempts this season have been categorized as layups or dunks. The issue is what happens when Tilman gets there, as the 6-foot-7 forward is shooting just 48.1 percent on those shots, far and away the worst mark on the team. Against UNR, Tillman went 0-of-4 at the rim, including one wild attempt that caromed off the side of the backboard. As a sophomore at Utah last year, Tillman hit 57.8 percent of his shots at the rim, so his inability to convert easy baskets for the Rebels is a mystery. “I’ve got to pick it up,” Tillman said. “I’ve been having a tough month, but I know I’m going to keep grinding.” Tillman suggested that he might benefit from a more aggressive mindset when he gets close to the rim. “It’s got to be about trusting myself as a player,” he said. “I know what I can do. It’s all about having confidence in myself and believing. Some of those I’ve got to go try and dunk it. I think I’m not trying [to dunk] enough.” UNLV coach T.J. Otzelberger said the Rebels will have to work the ball inside with purpose — and finish — in order to knock off San Diego State. “It’s really important,” Otzelberger said. “We have to be intentional and get the ball all the way to the rim. They do a great job kind of bumping you out and trying to get you to settle for 5- or 8-foot jump hooks and turnarounds as opposed to getting all the way to the rim. “We’ve got to finish those plays,” he said. Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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