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Friday, April 18, 2014 | Last updated: 3:40am

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Arizona Wildcats seek No. 1 spot against UNLV



With No. 1 Michigan State losing at home to unranked North Carolina on Wednesday night, No. 2 Arizona could take over the top ranking if it beats UNLV at McKale Center on Saturday afternoon.

It would be the first time since March 10, 2003, that the Wildcats held the nation’s No. 1 ranking.
But before this Wildcats’ (8-0) team can capture the alpha ranking, it must get past a talented Runnin’ Rebels (3-3) team that has shown a major turnaround from last season.

UNLV’s most noticeable change is the loss of 2013 first overall draft pick Anthony Bennett and forward Mike Moser, who graduated and chose to transfer to Oregon for a fifth season.

Still, if the Runnin’ Rebels, who feature six transfers, can find chemistry, they are talented enough to take down even the nation’s No. 1 team.

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By Ryan Revock / Arizona Daily Wildcat
Ryan Revock / The Daily Wildcat UA junior guard T.J. McConnell drives the ball towards the net against Texas Tech on Tuesday at the McKale Center.

2011 McDonald’s High School All-American and Pittsburgh transfer forward Khem Birch is a shot-blocking machine. Birch was named the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year last season after averaging three blocks a game in his first season in Las Vegas. He is also one of the nation’s best offensive rebounders.

Fellow junior forward Roscoe Smith is also a talented Rebel who has not received much attention this season. Smith transferred from UConn after the 2011-12 season and can be dangerous around the basket. His 16.2 rebounds a game is the highest average in the country, with Kentucky’s Julius Randle being the next highest at 12.6. Smith can also on occasion be a threat to shoot and make a 3-pointer.

With No. 1 Michigan State losing at home to unranked North Carolina on Wednesday night, No. 2 Arizona could take over the top ranking if it beats UNLV at McKale Center on Saturday afternoon.

At 3-3 with losses to Illinois, ASU and UC Santa Barbara and an exhibition loss to Dixie State on Nov. 1, the chemistry clearly isn’t there yet for head coach Dave Rice.

That lack of chemistry will be a factor if Arizona goes on a scoring stretch. The Runnin’ Rebels don’t have a leader yet, nor are they a consistent shooting team.

On the other hand, the Wildcats have too many scorers for UNLV to try to stop. What probably will end up being the difference is the turnover ratio. Arizona hosts the nation’s 13th best scoring defense while the Runnin’ Rebels turn the ball over an average of 14 times per contest. And they don’t make up for it on the defensive side, as they average a -2.7 turnover ratio, 304th in the country.

Arizona’s point guard T.J. McConnell, however, will have to find open shooters Saturday, as the Runnin’ Rebels comprise one of the strongest teams around the basket. So far, finding scorers hasn’t been too much of a problem for the junior guard. McConnell’s 6.4 assists per game are tied for the 12th-most in the country.

Look for McConnell to continue to find shooting guard Nick Johnson, as he has had the hot hand early in the season, making more than 50 percent of his shot attempts, and is quickly emerging as the leader of this Wildcats team.

While a No. 1 ranking appears close, Arizona still must be on top of its game Saturday because UNLV has the talent and size to contend with any team.

—Follow Luke Della @LukeDella


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