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Nevada-Utah: Three keys and a prediction

Tre'Shawn Thurman
Tre'Shawn Thurman and the Wolf Pack take on Utah on Saturday. (John Byrne/Nevada athletics)

The Nevada basketball team plays at Utah on Saturday morning. Nevada Sports Net’s Chris Murray breaks down the game with three keys to victory and his prediction.

Nevada (12-0) at Utah (6-5)

When: Saturday, 11 a.m.

Where: Huntsman Center (15,000 capacity)

TV/Radio: Pac-12 Network/630 AM

Online: None

Betting line: No line released yet

Three keys for Nevada to win

1. Push after misses: Nevada’s offense has “regressed” in recent games (those are coach Eric Musselman’s words) and part of reason for that, per Jazz Johnson, is because the Wolf Pack isn’t playing with enough pace. That makes sense. In fact, Nevada ranks 205th in the nation in adjusted tempo, per KenPom, after averaging 83rd in the nation in Musselman’s first three seasons. The Wolf Pack is a bigger team, so it makes sense it is playing slower this season, but it could stand to get more easy transition baskets to spark its stagnant offense. Nevada is accomplishing the first requirement to do so (getting stops and defensive rebounds), but hasn’t been as aggressive in pushing the ball off those misses. “We definitely ran more,” Johnson said of Nevada’s offense earlier in the season. “We pushed the ball a lot more and tried to get out in transition.” Playing faster will be a challenge because Utah plays super slow (322nd in tempo).

2. Limit the offensive rebounds: Utah’s offense hasn't been especially sharp this season. The team is shooting 46.3 percent from the field (it is historically in the 48-50 percent range) and 36.3 percent from three. One area it has been good is getting second-chance opportunities. Utah has excellent size and grabs 30.1 percent of its misses (77th in the nation), including 39.2 percent of its misses in its last three games. Nevada has done a great job of limiting the opposition to one shot per possession, grabbing 77.9 percent of its foes’ misses (37th in the nation). This is two strengths going against each other. The Wolf Pack’s first-wave defense against Utah should be solid, but it must close out the possession by holding the Utes to 10 offensive rebounds or fewer. Utah has big wings and goes 6-foot-9 (Riley Batten) and 7 feet (Jayce Johnson) in the frontcourt, so Nevada is battling some legit size on the backboard. Trey Porter and/or Jordan Brown should play a big role in this game.

3. Make Barefield inefficient: Utah’s top scorer, 6-foot-2 guard Sedrick Barefield, hasn’t been very efficient this season (or in his career). He’s shooting 37.3 percent from the field this season and is a 39.8 percent career shooter. But when he gets hot, he’s dangerous. Barefield’s game is largely restricted to the 3-point line, with more than half of his career shots coming from beyond the arc. He also doesn’t get to the free throw line very often. But when Barefield plays well, Utah usually wins. In the Utes’ six victories this season, Barefield is averaging 15.7 points on 43.7 percent shooting. In their five losses, Barefield is averaging 10.6 points on 30.2 percent shooting. Nevada prides itself on being able to slow down the opposition’s best offensive player. The target Saturday is Barefield, who a harbinger for Utah’s success. Barefield recently went from starter to reserve, but he's still averaging 31.3 mintues per game over the last three contests. He's the man to mark.

Prediction

Nevada 75, Utah 68: Utah has won at least 20 games in five straight seasons, but that almost certainly won't happen this year. In fact, Utah is only favored to win two more games this season, per the advanced metrics. This is a team in search of an identity. The Utes have used nine starters this season (Nevada has run out the same starting five in every game), and Utah has three freshmen in its current starting lineup (Nevada starts five seniors). So, big edge for the Wolf Pack in terms of experience. The Utes have yet to win a Quad 1 or 2 game this season and four of the team’s six wins have come against teams ranked 282 or higher in NET. Nevada and Utah have played three common opponents this year – BYU, Grand Canyon and Tulsa – with the Utes beating Grand Canyon and Tulsa but losing by 15 to BYU, which Nevada beat by 16 in its season opener. Utah is far better at home than on the road (its last non-conference home loss was Nov. 25, 2016, to No. 18 Butler), so the venue should help tighten this game, but Nevada is a couple levels better than Utah and should close non-conference play with a perfect record. Season record: 12-0

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