With wins over No. 5 Utah and No. 19 New Mexico last week, Nevada-Las Vegas was probably the last school the men's basketball team wanted to play in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Nevertheless, Princeton (26-1 overall, 14-0 Ivy League) will take on UNLV (20-12, 7-7 Western Athletic Conference) tonight in Hartford, Conn. It is the third straight year that the Tigers will meet a western foe in the opening round of the tournament.
As for the other three No. 12 seeds, South Alabama and Iona are from lower-tier conferences. Florida State has struggled to end the season, winning just two of its last nine games.
After a subpar regular season that saw UNLV underachieve, including dropping a 62-50 decision against struggling Texas-El Paso, the Runnin' Rebels ran the table, winning their final six games. By beating Hawaii, New Mexico and Utah in the WAC tournament, UNLV earned an automatic berth in the NCAAs. If the Rebels had lost in the WAC tournament, they would probably be playing in the National Invitational Tournament instead of preparing for tonight's contest against Princeton.
One factor in UNLV's troubles this season is chemistry. Senior center Keon Clark, a probable NBA first-round draft pick, was ineligible to play in the first half of the season. But when Clark finally joined the Rebels, their performance did not improve. After 10 games, Clark was permanently dismissed for breaking unspecified team rules.
During the season, UNLV was prone to bad shots, particularly long three-pointers early in its offensive set. But in the WAC tourney, the Rebels played their best basketball of the season. UNLV showed patience, working the offense for easier shots. Consequently, they scored only 54 points against Utah and 56 against New Mexico but still managed to win both games.
"They're not really the Runnin' Rebels anymore," Carmody said. "In the half court set, they're pretty good."
A key for Princeton is to capitalize on UNLV's impatience on the offensive end. When the Rebels begin to launch bad shots, the Tigers must convert on the other end in their halfcourt set, either running backdoor cuts or launching good looks from beyond the three-point arc.
UNLV is led by senior forward Tyrone Nesby, who averages 15.7 points per game. The six-foot, six-inch Nesby will be guarded by senior forward James Mastaglio, Princeton's best defender. Nesby might be the Rebels' worst offender at firing up forced three-pointers instead of working the offense. But if Nesby is hitting the three, he can carry the team singlehandedly.
Freshman Kaspers Kambala replaces Clark in the at center. The 6-9, 250-pound Kambala is being called a "monster" by the Tiger coaching staff because of his size, but he is not nearly the player Clark is.
Senior center Steve Goodrich should be able to exploit the slower Kambala, both on the inside and the perimeter. Goodrich's post moves have become so refined this season that he has often been able to score at will. By shooting 20-for-25 in his final two games, Goodrich's field goal percentage has risen to 60.4 percent.
But in order to stop Princeton's backdoor cuts and keep Goodrich under control, UNLV may turn to a zone defense. UNLV has played a lot of 2-3 zone this season. Teams like Wake Forest and North Carolina that have tried to play an aggressive man defense against the Tigers have struggled defensively, giving up easy layups.
UNLV's other forward is 6-8 Kevin Simmons, who will be guarded by junior forward Gabe Lewullis. Lewullis guarded taller opponents earlier this season and should be able to take advantage of Simmons' inexperience defending on the perimeter.
At the guard spots, Princeton's duo of senior Mitch Henderson and junior Brian Earl should be able to match up with the Rebels' Brian Keefe and Mark Dickel.
Despite the obvious differences between the Rebels and the Tigers' Ivy League opponents, expect Princeton to play the same way it has all season long. The Tigers will still run man-to-man defense and their normal offensive sets. Princeton must make the shots it's been making all season long.
Only once this season has Princeton shot poorly from behind the arc, against then-No. 2 North Carolina. If the Tigers are hitting their shots, they are capable of beating anyone, especially a UNLV team that's fortunate just to be in the tournament. But if Princeton's shooting is off, the Tigers could be in for a long night.