Men’s basketball anticipates tough offensive matchup against UNLV
Redshirt senior guard Prince Ali is averaging 11.0 points per game through UCLA men’s basketball’s first two outings. Ali also leads the Bruins with 15 free throw attempts on the season. (Tanmay Shankar/Assistant Photo editor)
Friday, 8 p.m.
By Sam Connon
Nov. 15, 2019 2:11 a.m.
This post was updated Nov. 15 at 12:09 p.m.
The Runnin’ Rebels have never beat the Bruins, but if history means anything, they are getting closer.
UCLA men’s basketball (2-0) will host UNLV (1-2) on Friday for the teams’ first matchup in Pauley Pavilion since 1998. The Bruins own a 5-0 advantage over the Rebels all-time, but in their last meeting, UCLA won by just two points in the opening round of the 2015 Maui Jim Maui Invitational.
Only two Bruins on this year’s roster were around for that matchup – redshirt seniors guard Prince Ali and forward Alex Olesinski. The then-freshman duo combined for 10 points, seven rebounds and 31 minutes in the game.
“Historically, they’ve been a big, physical team,” Ali said. “I’ve played against them once in my career, and it wasn’t an easy game, so that’s what I’m expecting.”
UNLV opened its 2019-2020 season with a 15-point victory over Purdue Fort Wayne – which UCLA beat by 25 in its season-opener last year – before dropping its next two games. Both losses came in overtime, however, and both came against Power Five teams in Kansas State and California.
And despite owning a losing record, the Rebels are averaging 10.7 more rebounds per game than their opponents, something coach Mick Cronin said he has taken notice of.
“(The Rebels) are big and strong and they rebound the ball,” Cronin said. “I don’t think they’re going to be in shock playing us because they’ve already seen other high-major teams. It’s not like they’ve been at home blowing teams out, so I think that’s an advantage for them – they’ve been in a couple of dogfights already.”
Unlike UNLV, UCLA has had to rely on second-half comebacks against Big West opponents to preserve its young undefeated season.
Sophomore guard Jules Bernard said the Bruins won’t be able to count on another comeback with a veteran UNLV squad coming to town.
“We need to come out with passion right from the beginning and make a statement,” Bernard said. “So that’s definitely an emphasis going into the future games – coming out strong and making a statement right away.”
The defensive-minded Cronin is familiar with UNLV’s leading scorer, however – guard Amauri Hardy. The first-year UCLA coach tried to recruit Hardy when he was still at Cincinnati, and he said shutting down the junior will be paramount for the Bruin defense on Friday.
“Amauri Hardy is a great player, creates a lot of offense for himself and his teammates off the dribble,” Cronin said. “He can get his own points, he doesn’t need screens, he doesn’t need the pick and roll – he can go get it.”
The junior from Detroit is averaging 19 points per game through UNLV’s first three outings, with a season-best 27 points and five 3s coming against Kansas State. After averaging 18.9 minutes per game his freshman season and 29.6 a season ago, Hardy is averaging 38.3 so far this year.
Hardy’s backcourt mate, guard Elijah Mitrou-Long, is another key Rebel who Cronin said the Bruins will have to look out for. Mitrou-Long is a graduate transfer from Texas who is averaging 12.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and four assists in his first season running the point for UNLV.
Ali – who will likely be tasked with defending the UNLV’s established guards – said Friday’s game will mark a significant personal moment for him. His parents, who are from New York, are flying out west to watch their son play in Pauley Pavilion for the first time in his UCLA career.
“It’s going to mean a lot,” Ali said. “They’ve been to a few games I’ve been hurt, some of them – most of them actually – so it’s going to mean a lot. It’s my senior year.”