The Nevada basketball team opens Mountain West play at Air Force on Saturday. Nevada Sports Net’s Chris Murray breaks down the game with his three keys to victory and prediction.
Nevada (6-3, 0-0 MW) at Air Force (4-5, 1-0)
When: Saturday, 11 a.m. Pacific time
Where: Clune Arena (5,858 capacity)
TV/Radio: AT&T SportsNet/94.5 FM
Betting line: Nevada by 3.5 points
Three keys for Nevada to win
1. Keep doing what you’re doing on offense: Nevada’s offense has been on fire in the last four games, and it’s about to meet some kindling. Air Force’s defense is bad. The second worst in the Mountain West ahead of only San Jose State. The Falcons allow opponent to shoot 47.9 percent from the field and don't force turnovers (fewer than 11 per game). As long as Nevada continues to move the ball, not turn it over and hit open shots, as it has during this four-game win streak, it should have great success against the Falcons, who also don’t have any rim protection (only 16 blocks in nine games). Nevada’s 3-point shooting has been great, and that’s not an area Air Force excels at stopping. Opponents are making 35.4 percent of their threes versus the Falcons. I’d be surprised if Nevada doesn’t have a strong offensive game given how it’s played of late and the holes in Air Force’s defense.
2. Try and stay even from the line: Air Force’s offense has been much better than its defense. This is a potentially dangerous offensive group as the Falcons returned their top-five scorers from last season and seven of their top eight. (Technically, they returned their top eight scorers, but Ameka Akaya hasn’t played this season and won’t until January at the earliest). This is a solid offensive team that has played a lot of games together. That shows with their offensive efficiency. Air Force runs the Princeton offense, which can be difficult to defend for younger players, of which Nevada has a few (No backdoor cuts!). The Falcons have done a good job of getting to the free throw line. It has made more free throws (140) than its opponent has attempted (128). Air Force is plus-57 from the free throw line. Nevada is minus-28 from the charity stripe. This is an area of advantage for the Falcons. If Nevada is even from the line, it's a win.
3. Crush them on the glass: Air Force isn’t a big team and that shows on the glass where the Falcons have been out-rebounded by an average of 1.2 boards per game. That’s the second-worst mark in the MW. The Wolf Pack has been far better there, out-rebounding teams by 2.2 boards a night, which ranks fifth in the MW. Nevada was plus-15 on the glass in its last game and could earn a double-digit edge there against the Falcons if it remains focused. Like Santa Clara, Air Force is a really poor offensive rebounding team but is a really good defensive rebounding team, so you shouldn’t expect a lot of second-chance points for either squad. Neither team has a true glass eater. Wing players lead both teams in rebounding. For Nevada, that’s Jalen Harris (6.8 per game). For Air Force, that’s Lavelle Scottie (6.1 per game). It’d be a surprise if the Wolf Pack didn’t win the battle of the boards by a healthy margin.
Nevada 78, Air Force 68: This is a game Nevada should win handily if it continues the level of play we’ve seen over its last four contests. Air Force is roughly the same caliber of team the Wolf Pack has faced in this winning streak (if not a little lower on the spectrum). But Clune Arena can be a tricky place to play given the altitude, the relative lack of crowd and the discipline with which the Falcons play their unique system. If a more talented and athletic team doesn’t come in focused, Air Force is more than capable of springing the upset, which we usually see a couple of times during MW play every season. Nevada has shown good focus of late, especially in its lopsided win over Santa Clara on Wednesday where the Wolf Pack displayed no rust after having eight days off following its Paradise Jam title. Air Force is coming off a game in which it made 17 threes, so if it does anything close to that, this could be a close game. But I’ll take Nevada by double-digits. Season record: 8-1