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Utah State basketball: Rebounding battle will be key for USU against UNLV

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 10:41 p.m. MDT

Utah State's Kyle Davis (23) shoots between Boise State's Derrick Marks (2) and Nick Duncan, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Boise, Idaho, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014.  (Otto Kitsinger, AP) Utah State's Kyle Davis (23) shoots between Boise State's Derrick Marks (2) and Nick Duncan, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Boise, Idaho, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014. (Otto Kitsinger, AP)

LAS VEGAS — One of the major strengths of this year's Utah State basketball team has been its ability to rebound. Led by Kyle Davis (8.6 rebounds per game), Jarred Shaw (7.8) and Spencer Butterfield (6.1), the Aggies have mostly limited opponents to a single shot and have created multiple chances for themselves on the offensive end of the court.

As a team, Utah State rebounds nearly 57 percent of all missed shots, a mark that ranks 22nd in the country.

In Mountain West play, however, that number has been quickly falling. Ryan Watkins grabbed 10 offensive rebounds and 16 overall for Boise State against USU on Saturday, while the Aggies as a team only had 22 boards. Even in a win against Colorado State last week, USU was beaten on the boards, an unusual occurrence for any Stew Morrill-coached team.

When USU (12-5, 2-3 Mountain West) travels to UNLV (11-7, 2-3) on Wednesday, things won’t get any easier on the glass. The Rebels run out two of the best rebounders in the conference in forwards Roscoe Smith (12.4 rebounds per game) and Khem Birch (9.6).

“We just need to not give him second shots,” USU head coach Stew Morrill said of Smith. “The one thing is, they’re not shooting a great percentage in league, so there are a lot of second shots and they’re finding a way to gobble them up.”

Not only is their opponent tough on the boards, but the Aggies might be without the services of Davis, who was injured against Boise State and was unable to practice Monday.

“He’s our leading rebounder. He’s got a nose himself for the ball. He does a good job on the boards,” Morrill said. “That won’t help matters if we don’t have him.”

UNLV was picked to finish near the top of the league, but has struggled to find consistency this season. The Rebels won last week at New Mexico, but are 0-2 in conference play at the Thomas & Mack Center, losing to Nevada and Air Force.

While UNLV's offense can sometimes sputter, its defense is near the top in several statistics. The Rebels allow opponents to shoot just 26.4 percent from beyond the arc, the second-best mark in the country. The Aggies, meanwhile, make more than 43 percent of their 3-point attempts, which ranks 18th nationally.

“They just play pressure man-to-man. That’s what has been the deal with UNLV for a long time,” Morrill said. “They deny your passes. They don’t help a lot in the post, so they’re getting it out to 3-point shooters. When you have as much team quickness as they do, it takes you a lot less time to recover. Their style of defense is one thing, but their athletes are the big reason their style of defense works.”

The Aggies return home following the trip to Las Vegas with a “whiteout” game against San Diego State on Saturday night at 9 p.m.

Kraig Williams is a 2010 Utah State University graduate and regular Deseret News sports blogger. He can be followed on Twitter @DesNewsKraig.

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