How can the University of Utah - or anyone else, for that matter - beat the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Runnin' Rebels, possibly the greatest team in the history of college basketball?
Here is a possible scenario for a Ute victory:The Runnin' Rebels come out with their usual "amoeba" defense, which is a 1-3-1 match-up zone that sometimes looks like a 2-2-1 alignment. They swarm to the ball, which puts heavy pressure on the ballhandlers (they cause 20 turnovers per game), but it also leaves the weakside wide open. The Utes are able to pass quickly and cleanly over and through the Rebels for back-side buckets. This is not a new idea, but rarely has anyone been able to do it. Kansas did the same thing to beat the Rebels in the preseason NIT last year. Princeton tried the same thing earlier in the season, but the Rebels were too tall and quick, and the Tigers couldn't pass over them or catch the ball before the lightning-quick Rebels recovered.
But the Utes succeed. They space the UNLV defense enough to make it difficult for them to get back to the undefended areas. "We keep them wide and cut in behind them," says forward Craig Rydalch. It's what the Utes have practiced all week.
When they're not getting the back-door stuff, the Utes are forcing Johnson, the lone man under the basket, to make difficult decisions. Does he come out on Walter Watts in the high post - where Watts is mismatched with a 6-2 guard - or does he lay back? Meanwhile, Josh Grant is getting lots of shots from the corner, a weak spot in the 1-3-1 zone. The defensive pressure is stretched out on the wings, covering the guards. Forced to spread out by the Utes, the Rebels are unable to cover both the guards on the wings and Grant in the corner. One or the other is open for shots - and they make a high percentage of them. Grant gets increasing pressure from UNLV's best defensive player, Stacey Augmon, but he snaps the ball to a teammate in the lane or on the wing for open shots.
The Ute guards, having learned from their mistakes against South Alabama's pressure, handle the Rebel pressure and are able to get the ball up the court without many turnovers. They also are able to penetrate and dish off.
On defense, the Rebels are frustrated by the Utes' man-to-man defense, which denies every pass. The Rebels' shooters are cold outside. The Rebels can't force the spacing, and the Utes are able to double up certain players. They have rarely played a team that can match their physicality. The Utes hold up the Rebels' movement away from the ball by putting a body on them. They also confuse them by switching defenses frequently - the floating zone, a box-and-one.
What's more, the Utes send two or more players back each time the Rebels shoot, cutting off the fastbreak, where the Rebels get about 40 percent of their points. This forces UNLV into a half-court game, which is not in their comfort zone.
Says Watts, "We pass, pass, pass until we get a good shot, we go to the glass hard and we send two guys back for the fastbreak. If everything works out right, we can win."