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2011 NCAA Tournament Bracket Predictions, Southwest Regional: UNLV Runnin Rebels vs. Illinois Fightin Illini

UNLV and Illinois is the final matchup taking place in the Tulsa regional of the 2011 NCAA Tournament. The winner will take on the Kansas-Boston University winner (click here for the Friday schedule). The game will be on TBS at 6:20 PM PT/9:20 PM ET (or 20-30 minutes after conclusion of Kansas-BU).

Let’s take a look at each team. Let me warn you ahead of time that I grew up in Las Vegas and UNLV remains my favorite college basketball team. You’ve been forewarned of my biases.

#8 UNLV Rebels

UNLV is rated the 57th best offense, 17th best defense and top third in terms of the pace they run. This team is really built around a defense that has made up for some horrendous shooting games. In a somewhat ironic twist, UNLV is 226th in three point shooting but they’ve still managed to maintain the longest 3-point shooting streak in the country, hitting at least one three in every game since the three-point line was introduced. If the Rebels are hitting their threes they can beat anybody in the country. If they’re not hitting their threes they need a monster defensive effort and easy buckets in transition.

I watched upwards of half of UNLV’s games and followed the rest on some kind of game tracker and their biggest weakness has been inconsistency inside the paint. They send out a trio in Quintrell Thomas, Carlos Lopez and Brice Massamba. If they can get any kind of scoring out of these three it’s a plus. However, if they’re struggling UNLV can fall in love with the three-ball even if it’s not falling. If that happens they don’t have enough offense to make up the difference.

#9 Illinois Fighting Illini

Ken Pomeroy rates the Illini as the 34th best offense, 21st best defense, and middle of the pack when it comes to the tempo they push. They are one of the best teams in the country in hitting the three-ball and also defending against the three. They cover shooters well and bring serious size to the table. The Illini struggle in getting to the line and forcing turnovers.

Prediction: The numbers would seem to indicate that Illinois is the team to beat in this contest. UNLV is a slim favorite but in checking brackets and the "average bracket" from around the country, more and more people are picking the Illini. However, I’m going with my Runnin Rebels. Aside from the fact that I’m a UNLV fan, I think the Rebels are playing better. The Illini seem better on paper but they went in the tank to close out the year, while UNLV was playing some strong basketball at the end of the season. I’ll go with that momentum.