The NCAA Selection Committee broke a few rules by putting No. 12 UNLV against No. 5 California, but if this game is anything like the first game between these two teams, this could be one of the more exciting matchups of the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The first reason UNLV and Cal shouldn't have ended up squared off in the second round of the tourney is that, as noted, this is a rematch. The committee hypothetically avoids potential early-round pairings that are repeats of games that have already happened. These two teams met in December, and it was a good one: backup forward Quintrell Thomas hit a shot in the lane with 1.2 seconds left after grabbing an offensive board. It was an important game for both teams in their season storylines, with UNLV losing Mike Moser, who was supposed to be their feature player but has been just a role player since returning from injury, and Cal hanging with a strong team for the first time on the season before a 12-6 Pac-12 record got them dancing.
The second reason this matchup shouldn't have happened is that it's in San Jose. The priority is typically supposed to be towards getting the better team a close-to-home location in the tourney. In this case, fifth-seeded UNLV is about 500 miles from their campus, while Cal is about 50. As California Golden Blogs giddily wrote after receiving their pairing Sunday, they went from nearly not being included in the field to essentially having a home game. After UNLV reeled off a trip to the MWC finals thanks to a friendly home environment at the Thomas and Mack Center, the Runnin' Rebels know the benefit of having a supposed neutral site turn into a home atmosphere.
The strength for both teams is interior defense. UNLV blocks 14.7 percent of opposing shots, the tenth-best figure in the nation, with Khem Birch recording 2.2 blocks in just 22 minutes of playing time. That could be an issue against California, who only had 7.0 percent of their shots blocked, the 14th-best rate in the nation. The Golden Bears don't have much of an outside game, but 6'6 junior Allen Crabbe averages 18.7, mainly from inside the arc, and Justin Cobbs is putting up 15.5 points per contest. Meanwhile, Cal holds opponents to 42.0 percent from inside the arc, but they have really struggled with freshman power forward Anthony Bennett. The 6'8 Canadian has turned into UNLV's feature player, posting 16.1 points and 8.1 boards per game, and, most importantly, recording then career-highs with 22 points and 13 boards against Cal earlier in the year.
Here's the info on Thursday evening's game:
No. 5 UNLV (25-9, 10-6 MWC, Kenpom ranking 36) vs. No. 12 California (20-11, 12-6 Pac-12, Kenpom ranking 58)
Time: Thursday, 7:40 p.m.
Location: HP Pavilion at San Jose