Over the first few weeks of the season, a consensus quickly emerged about the college basketball landscape. There were five or six teams – UNC, Kentucky, Ohio State, Duke, and probably Syracuse and UConn – that were head and shoulders above the rest. Below them there was parity, but it was going to take a to to defeat the upper echelon of the sport.
Or, as it turns out, it would just take physical play inside and hot outside shooting. UNLV had both in spades last night, as they used a 15-0 run to start the second half to keep the Heels at bay and hand them their first loss of the season art night.
The Runnin' Rebels, despite giving up some size to UNC in the front court, handily won the battle of the big men. Tyler Zeller picked up three fouls in the first half and played only 24 minutes; he, John Henson, and James McAdoo were a combined 6 of 22 from the floor, and had only 19 rebounds. Compare that to 6'8" UNLV forward Mike Moser, who had 18 rebounds on his own, to go along with 19 points. Harrison Barnes was equally ineffective shooting 6 of 16 from the floor.
Carolina was absolutely killed on the boards. UNLV outrebounded them 46 to 37, despite shooting much better from the field. More critical were the Rebels 13 offensive rebounds, which directly led to 18 points, well over the difference in the game. UNLV was a smaller team, and UNC was often in a better rebounding position; yet they couldn't get their hands on the ball.
What kept the Tar Heels in the game was some excellent first half shooting from the guards. P.J. Hairston picked up where he left off in the South Carolina game, hitting three of five three-point shots and all of his free throws, for a team-high 15 points. Dexter Strickland and Reggie Bullock were also key, scoring 12 and 8 respectively, all on dribble penetration. In the second half, however, UNC's touch went cold, and their shots became more panicked and earlier in the shot clock. They did not settle for outside shots, despite the commentary I was reading at the time. Carolina only attempted two threes in the first 15 minutes of the second half, both from Hairston. No, they kept trying to get the interior game working, but the shots became more and more ill-advised, and the rebounds kept being pulled down into UNLV hands.
Don't be fooled by UNLV's lack of ranking. They will be now, and will hold it most of the year. Ken Pomeroy already had them at 16 before the Las Vegas games began. And the loss might be a good corrective for this team, who has been out rebounded three times this year, and are plagued by consistently poor free throw shooting. The perimeter defense isn't bad – UNLV shot 40% from the behind the arc, but most of Chase Stanback's 28 points came inside, for instance. More importantly, a frontcourt with the talent of Zeller and Henson can't be pushed around like that, and Harrison Barnes can't be that ineffective. Wisconsin and Kentucky are going to try the same sort of physical play, and it will be a long week if the Heels can't find a way to combat it.