WWJD #9- 2020 Runnin Rebels – TJ’s Team



UNLV head basketball coach TJ Otzelberger is doing one hell of a job coaching his Runnin’ Rebels basketball team. UNLV’s 12 confrence victories is the first time they reached that mark since 2007-2008, the last time they advanced in the NCAA Tournament.


UNLV vs San Diego State
Photo Credit: Terrance Quaites – Franchise Sports Media

Since starting the season 4-8, the Runnin’ Rebels have gone 13-6, including an upset win against San Deigo State at Viejas Arena, ending the Aztecs 26 game winning streak. UNLV has also blown out Boise State, Utah StateColorado State, and swept a talented yet underachieving New Mexico team. This is what UNLV Atheltic Director Desiree Reed-Francois envisioned when she hired Otzelberger last March.

“When I set out to find the next coach of our Runnin’ Rebels,” Director of Athletics Desiree Reed-Francois said when she announced the hire. “I sought a hard-working, laser-focused head coach who personifies our core values; who knows what success looks like; who is passionately committed to winning; and who is at ease with being the face of our storied basketball program. T.J. exemplifies these attributes. I am confident he is the right coach to bring the Runnin’ Rebels into a new era of preeminence, and we welcome T.J., Alison, Jayce, Olivia, and Stella to the UNLV Family.”


The turning point in the season came on December 18th, when UNLV lost to Pacific, 74-66 at Thomas & Mack, which was right after the Runnin’ Rebels got ran out of the gym against BYU 83-50.


Runnin Rebels vs New Mexico
Photo Credit: Terrance Quaites – Franchise Sports Media

Coach Otzelberger had had enough. He didn’t like the effort or the style of play his team was showing, so he decided to make a change. Otzelberger challenged Bryce Hamilton to be more consistent first and foremost. He then shuffled his starting line-up by moving Amauri Hardy and Donnie Tillman to the bench in favor of two former walk-ons, Marvin Coleman and Nick Blair, as his starters, both Las Vegas local products. Against the Lobos, Coleman rewarded his coach by recording a triple-double (11/12/11) while Hamilton also had a career-high 35 points.

UNLV went 7-1 after the Pacific loss, followed by four straight losses, during their toughest stretch of the season. Most UNLV teams have struggled during the month of February. Former UNLV head coach Marvin Menzies went 7-23, and while under Otzelberger, UNLV went 6-3 during that stretch. After coach Otzelberger made the lineup adjustments, the team showed a new toughness and hustle that they didn’t’ show consistently early in the season.


Prior to the SDSU game coach Otzelberger made another decision that may have changed the course of the Runnin’ Rebels season. He decided to go to a four-guard lineup which gave the Aztecs fits.


Coach Otzelberger decided to run with the quartet of Coleman, HamiltonHardy, and Blair, and it paid dividends against the then 4th ranked and undefeated San Diego State team. The Runnin’ Rebels beat the Aztecs 66-63 and showed that they didn’t fear them at all. The four guards scored a combined 37 points with an additional 19 coming off the bench from one of the Runnin’ Rebels’ catalysts, Elijah Mitrou-Long, to secure the Rebels’ upset victory.

What coach Otzelberger did by making the switch in mid-December was a direct message to the entire UNLV basketball program, from players to recruits and fans; buy into what he’s doing and his vision, or you won’t wear Scarlet and Grey for long. The message was received loud and clear by most, and some had to learn that what worked in the past was no longer acceptable for UNLV basketball under coach Otzelberger.

With the Mountain West Tournament starting up and UNLV coming in as the fourth seed, taking on the fifth seed Boise St. Broncos, there are those who now think that the Runnin’ Rebels have a shot at winning the MWC Tournament, and burst the bubble of another team on Selection Sunday. UNLV would first have to beat the Broncos and then have a rubber match against SDSU in the Semi-Finals.


One thing is clear, under TJ Otzelberger the Runnin’ Rebels are on the right path to becoming what all UNLV fans want; a perennial NCAA Tournament team that can compete for NCAA National Championships.


UNLV vs Colorado State
Photo Credit: Terrance Quaites – Franchise Sports Media

“I have been fortunate to coach at some amazing universities, and it was going to take a very special opportunity to leave Brookings,” Otzelberger said shortly after he was hired. UNLV basketball is one of the most storied programs in the nation and situated in one of the world’s greatest cities. I’m honored to have the opportunity to add to the Runnin’ Rebels’ rich history and my family, and I could not be more proud to be the newest members of this world-class university and Las Vegas community.”

UNLV currently has the top-rated recruiting class in the Mountain West, and the 40th ranked nationally, according to 24/7 Sports. The big question many UNLV fans want to know is how can coach Otzelberger and his staff keep the 5 recruits that have committed while not having enough open spots on the roster? Who will be leaving and who will stay? How will coach Otzelberger adjust his roster to add the talent that now wants to come and play for him at UNLV?

If we have seen anything since TJ Otzelberger has taken over, we’ve seen that he knows how to make adjustments. He’s done it on the court, off of the court, and in the locker room. He will also have a familiar face he can turn to in 2020. The Runnin’ Rebels also will have guard David Jenkins Jr., a South Dakota State transfer who had to sit out the 2019-2020 season since he transferred to UNLV, available as well.

Getting Jenkins Jr. on the court in 2020-2021 is like adding a McDonald’s All American to an already talented UNLV roster. Jenkins Jr. played for coach Otzelberger at South Dakota St. and started all 32 of the Jackrabbits games. He ranked second on the team in scoring with 19.7 points per contest, he also shot 45.3 percent from 3-point range, making a program single-season record 112. “DJ” took official visits to Gonzaga, Oregon, and UNLV before signing with the Runnin’ Rebels. David Jenkins Jr. also held offers from Arizona, Kansas, Memphis, Notre Dame, Ohio State, San Diego State, UCLA, UNR, and Texas Tech, among others.


No matter what happens in the Mountain West Tournament the Runnin’ Rebels’ fan base has seen the type of progress that brings hope and expectations. Coach Otzelberger has established his culture for UNLV basketball and it all started when he made adjustments that he thought was needed for the program to become successful in the short and long term. Damn who agreed with it or disagreed with it. That is the type of attitude and leadership that UNLV needed and why the Runnin’ Rebels will be successful under his stewardship.


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Joe Arrigo





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