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Nevada-Utah State: Three keys and a prediction

Tre'Shawn Thurman
Tre'Shawn Thurman and the Wolf Pack host Utah State. (John Byrne/Nevada athletics)

The Nevada basketball team plays against Utah State on Wednesday night in Reno. Nevada Sports Net’s Chris Murray breaks down the game with three keys to victory and his prediction.

Utah State (10-3) at Nevada (13-0)

When: Wednesday, 8 p.m.

Where: Lawlor Events Center (11,536 capacity)

TV/Radio: ESPNU/94.5 FM

Online: ESPN3.com/Watch ESPN app

Betting line: Nevada by 10; total of 148.5

Three keys for Nevada to win

1. Don’t get crushed on the boards: Utah State is one of the nation’s best rebounding teams, posting a plus-11.7 rebound margin this season. That’s the sixth-best mark in the country. That includes an 82.3 percent defensive rebounding rate, which is second in the nation. Nevada is a below-average offensive rebounding team, so second-chance points for the Wolf Pack should be rare. Utah State also is a good offensive rebounding team, so Nevada must be strong on the defensive glass. The Aggies don’t have a player who averages more than 7.8 boards per game, so it’s a rebound-by-team approach. Utah State will almost certainly win the rebounding battle, but Nevada has to make sure it is competitive in this area. The Wolf Pack is a solid rebounding team (plus-2.3, 149th in the nation), although this isn’t a strength. Nevada has the size to battle Utah State on the glass and can’t get crushed in this area.

2. Prepare for Merrill’s all-around game: Utah State junior guard Sam Merrill is playing like a first-team All-MW pick, with his game changing this year with the departure of Koby McEwen, his sidekick who transferred to Marquette this offseason. During Merrill's first two seasons in Logan, 51.6 percent of his shots came from 3-point range. That number was even higher last year, sitting at 55.4 percent. But the excellent 3-point shooter – he’s a career 45.1 percent shooter from three – has been more aggressive in getting to the basket. Only 43.3 percent of his shots have come from three and he’s averaging 5.1 free throws per game (up from 2.0 per game during his first two college seasons). Merrill has become a more versatile offensive player who can stroke it from deep and get to the line, and he’s a much better finisher, shooting 58.1 percent from inside the arc (compared to 51 percent in his first two seasons). Defending Merrill will be one of Nevada’s most difficult challenges as it navigates the MW season.

3. Weather the early storm: I came to the epiphany this week that perhaps Nevada isn’t really getting off to slow starts (that’s been a common narrative so far this season), but instead its opposition is coming out guns-a-blazin’ knowing it is facing a top-10 team before the Wolf Pack eventually wears down its opponent over the full 40 minutes. Coach Eric Musselman, whose coaching room at Lawlor Events Center is closer to the opposition’s locker than his team’s locker, said he can tell how amped the opponent is heading into the game but that same verve isn’t emanating from their locker room heading into the second half. Nevada has out-scored opponents by 67 points in the first half but that figure is 132 points in the second half. The Wolf Pack has been out-scored in the second half only twice this season, and both times it had a double-digit lead at halftime and took its foot off the pedal to some degree. Utah State better be up a healthy margin at intermission if it stands a chance of beating the Wolf Pack.

Prediction

Nevada 78, Utah State 70: Utah State is massively improved this season, which is a surprise given the team lost its best returning player (McEwen) to transfer and five of its top seven scorers this season were all on last year’s roster. But first-year coach Craig Smith, previously at South Dakota, has done a terrific job, with the main differences coming in tempo (48th in the NCAA this year compared to 244th last year); team cohesion (Utah State plays a lot more unselfishly); and big man Neemias Queta (the freshman is averaging 9.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game). Utah State had the second-best non-conference run of any MW team behind Nevada, stacking 10 wins to go with three losses. Those defeats were to Arizona State and BYU (both teams Nevada has beaten) and undefeated Houston. The Aggies have only one win over a top-100 NET team (Saint Mary’s), so it doesn’t have any huge victories on its résumé so far. A win over Nevada would qualify in that category. I wouldn’t count on it, though. Season record: 13-0

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