Khem Birch, Justin Hawkins

Inability to run playing a role in UNLV’s slow start to conference play

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Halfway through the Mountain West race, Dave Rice’s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels (17-6, 4-4) find themselves three games behind first place New Mexico with the Lobos visiting Las Vegas on Saturday night.

The question that so many have in regards to a team that was thought to be capable of accomplishing some special things this season: what’s the problem?

In conference play there have been two major problems for UNLV: they’re struggling to get out in transition, which ultimately affects their perimeter accuracy, and they aren’t too good when it comes to forcing turnovers either.

UNLV currently ranks sixth in the Mountain West in three-point percentage, as they’re connecting on just 30.4% of their shots from beyond the arc. In their 64-55 loss at Fresno State on Thursday night UNLV shot 4-of-21 from distance, and even in their wins the Rebels have struggled to hit the shot at a decent clip outside of a 7-of-15 performance in their 62-50 win over Wyoming on January 24.

UNLV has capable shooters, be it a veteran like Mike Moser or freshman guard Katin Reinhardt , but they simply aren’t finding quality looks from deep on a consistent basis. UNLV hasn’t been able to lure opponents into a faster game as noted by Taylor Bern of the Las Vegas Sun, forcing Anthony Marshall and company to find looks in the half court. And that isn’t where the Rebels are at their best.

The Rebels work on a lot of transition offense in practices. Problem is, they can’t get out and run in conference play. They scored four fast-break points against Fresno and none against Boise. Opponents send guys back to stop those exact plays, conceding a few rebounds for the opportunity to force UNLV to beat them with half-court sets.

Those are the type of plays the Rebels need to be running over and over, because even if you agree with coach Dave Rice that the Rebels couldn’t make open shots against the Bulldogs, and I kind of do, this isn’t a new problem.

The bigger problem for UNLV is on the defensive end, where they’re forcing just 10.1 turnovers per game in league play. The end result is a turnover margin of minus-3.75, by far the worst number in the Mountain West.

In a sense UNLV faces a dilemma similar to that of Illinois, although the Runnin’ Rebels have been far better defensively when it comes to the percentages. If UNLV can force more turnovers they’ll find better scoring opportunities on the offensive end.

The problem is that while UNLV knows they need to do this so do their opponents. And through eight games UNLV hasn’t exactly shown themselves capable of making the needed adjustments.

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej

No. 22 Xavier’s slide continues with loss to short-handed No. 7 Creighton

CINCINNATI, OH - JANUARY 16:  Chris Mack the head coach of the Xavier Musketeers  gives instructions to his team against the Creighton Blue Jays during the game at Cintas Center on January 16, 2017 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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It’s officially time to be concerned about No. 22 Xavier.

The Musketeers have now lost three straight games, all to the top three teams in the Big East, and currently sit at 13-5 on the year with just a single good win to their name: Clemson.

But prior to Monday’s loss to No. 7 Creighton, Xavier had lost all of their games on the road to teams that will either get a top five seed in the NCAA tournament (Villanova, Butler, Baylor) or play at altitude (Colorado). On Monday, the Musketeers not only lost 72-67 to Creighton, but they did so on a day where the Bluejays lost star point guard and all-american candidate Mo Watson to a knee injury midway through the first half and spent the majority of the game playing with star center Justin Patton saddled with fouls.

Should I mention that Creighton, who is third-nationally in three-point percentage, shot 5-for-19 from beyond the arc, or that their two best healthy guards – Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas – shot a combined 10-for-31?

All of the stars were aligned. Coming how to an afternoon game against a top ten team on a holiday after losing back-to-back games on the road, and that top ten team lost their most important player early in the first half?

This should have been where Xavier landed that first elite win.

Instead, the Musketeers are left scratching their head again.

And it begs the question: If not now, when?

The Musketeers still play Villanova and Butler at home, visit Creighton and have the Crossroads Classic at Cincinnati. There are opportunities for them to get wins that they need.

But if they cannot get a win over a short-handed Creighton team at home, who are they actually going to be?

VIDEO: No. 7 Creighton beats No. 22 Xavier, loses all-american Mo Watson to a knee injury

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Creighton point guard Mo Watson was carried off of the Cintas Center floor on Monday afternoon after an ugly-looking injury in the first half.

Watson drove the lane and landed on his left leg. He immediately grabbed the knee in clear distress:

The Bluejays would hold on to win a thrilling, hard-fought game, 72-67, without Watson. That’s impressive, and it means that they move into a tie for first place in the Big East with Villanova, but the story of this game was Watson.

According to a reporter at the game, Watson told head coach Gregg McDermott that he “heard it pop“. Losing Watson to any significant injury would be catastrophic for the No. 8 Bluejays. Watson entered Monday averaging 13.4 points and a nation’s-best 8.8 assists. He’s been in the top ten of our Player of the Year Power Rankings all season long, is a clear-cut candidate for an all-american team and is the engine for the high-powered offense that has made Creighton a Final Four contender.

The injury may be somewhat controversial as well. Two minutes before the video clip above, Watson banged knees with a Xavier defender and had to be helped off of the floor. He was tested on the sideline and allowed to return to the game, albeit with a noticeable limp.

UPDATE: Gregg McDermott told FS1 after the game that Watson’s ligaments are intact, but that they are concerned about the meniscus.

College Basketball Coaches Poll: Kansas vaults to No. 1

LAWRENCE, KS - DECEMBER 03:  Devonte' Graham #4 of the Kansas Jayhawks celebrates with Frank Mason III #0 after making a three-pointer during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Allen Fieldhouse on December 3, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Kansas vaulted up to the No. 1 spot in the Coaches Poll for the first time this season, receiving 23 of the 32 first place votes.

Villanova comes in at No. 2 while UCLA, Gonzaga and Kentucky finish up the top five. Bay.or, who was No. 1 in the country last week, is No. 6 while Duke fell all the way to No. 18 with a pair of losses last week.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | Coaches Poll | NBC Sports Top 25

1. Kansas (23 first-place votes)
2. Villanova (4)
3. UCLA (2)
4. Gonzaga (3)
5. Kentucky
6. Baylor
7. Creighton
8. West Virginia
9. North Carolina
10. Oregon
11. Louisville
12. Florida State
13. Arizona
14. Butler
15. Notre Dame
16. Virginia
17. Wisconsin
18. Duke
19. Xavier
20. Cincinnati
21. Florida
22. Purdue
23. Saint Mary’s
24. South Carolina
25. Maryland

College Basketball AP Top 25: Villanova is back to the top spot

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 13: Kris Jenkins #2 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in the second half against the Temple Owls at The Pavilion on December 13, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Temple Owls 78-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Villanova vaulted back into the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll after falling out for a week when they lost at Creighton.

Kansas comes in at No. 2 while UCLA, Gonzaga and Kentucky finish up the top five. Bay.or, who was No. 1 in the country last week, is No. 6 while Duke fell all the way to No. 18 with a pair of losses last week.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | Coaches Poll | NBC Sports Top 25

1. Villanova (28 first-place votes)
2. Kansas (32)
3. UCLA (3)
4. Gonzaga (2)
5. Kentucky
6. Baylor
t-7. Creighton
t-7. West Virginia
9. North Carolina
10. Florida State
11. Oregon
12. Louisville
13. Butler
14. Arizona
15. Notre Dame
16. Virginia
17. Wisconsin
18. Duke
19. Florida
20. Cincinnati
21. Purdue
22. Xavier
23. Saint Mary’s
24. South Carolina
25. Maryland

Texas gets important commitment from 2017 point guard Matt Coleman

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Texas landed an important piece for its future on Monday as four-star Class of 2017 point guard Matt Coleman committed to the Longhorns during a televised announcement.

A priority recruit for head coach Shaka Smart, the 6-foot-2 Coleman is regarded as the No. 35 overall prospect in the country, according to Rivals. A lefty floor general who can attack the basket and set up others, Coleman played for Smart this summer as the two won a gold medal together with the USA Basketball U18 team during the 2016 FIBA Americas.

Coleman is going to have to improve his perimeter shooting for the next level — he only shot 18 percent from three-point range in Nike EYBL play — but he’s the type of setup guard who should help the talented Texas perimeter get ideal shots. It’ll be intriguing to see how Smart plans to play Coleman in what could be a crowded backcourt next season but Coleman should help bring stability to the team.

With Coleman in the mix, we’ll likely see Smart use a lot of lineups with two ball handlers as we saw with Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix last season. That type of backcourt might suit Smart’s style of play a bit better than the current Texas roster this season.

Coleman is the fourth commitment for Texas in the Class of 2017. He joins three other four-star prospects in big man Jericho Sims, guard Jase Febres and forward Royce Hamm.