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The First UNLV Basketball Blog For 2020 – By Jeff Wadilove



Expectations vs Reality.

The two concepts very rarely threaten to coincide with one another in collegiate basketball. Fans typically want instantaneous results; coaches want their players to mirror their ideology and theories on the court, while players more often than not want personal success to translate towards a career in hoops. 


For fans of UNLV Basketball, it’s been damn near 30 years since they experienced how greatness felt. After Tarkanian’s juggernaut was dismantled by the NCAA and petty greed from within UNLV’s walls, the narrative for the program has been an almost constant state of “wait til next year.” Wins have been tough to come by in the last 5-6 years. The product has been disappointing, sloppy, and erratic, so it’s no surprise that the 18,500 seat Thomas and Mack Center has become cavernously empty. To put it mildly, the fans want and deserve more. 


In case you haven’t been counting, there have been 13 head coaches at UNLV since Tark. The thought by a lot of the leadership at UNLV for many years was that Runnin’ Rebel basketball would take care of itself. Few in charge understood that the flagship of the university needed to be cared for and cultivated.

Only one hire among that 13 so far, truly understood what it meant to run the program. Lon Kruger elevated the facilities with Mendenhal. He embraced the community full bore and brought all of Tark’s guys home with open arms. Kruger also scheduled aggressively, put teams on the floor with a definitive identity, and purpose. Above all else, he won. The other 12 coaches? Not so much.


Big-time players have always been a fixture at UNLV. Tark was the best recruiter obviously, but there’s been plenty of NBA level talent at the school since his era. Shawn Marion, Marcus Banks, Lou Amundson, Joel Anthony, Patrick McCaw, Khem Birch, Christian Wood, and Derrick Jones Jr., to name a few. In fact, since 1975 UNLV has had a player in the league every single year. That’s 45 straight years in total that a Runnin’ Rebel has been in the NBA. 


That’s what TJ Otzelberger inherited in a nutshell. A jaded fanbase and a fledgling program, but also a place that can lure talent. 


It wasn’t so long ago that UNLV led the west coast in attendance. In 2013 they did that, and they were 14th nationally that year as well. The difference back then was that the team was winning. The program had momentum on its side. The fans had a reason to be invested, not only with their time but also their hard-earned money.

When you drop games at home to Pacific, Texas State, and Loyola Marymount in subsequent years, fans just aren’t going to come out and support. However, just because Rebel fans are conditional, doesn’t mean they won’t endorse a winner. If Otzelberger begins to win, the ghost town that is the T&M will be packed to capacity once more. It’s been proven at UNLV over and over again. The fans left during the Rollie and Bayno years; then, they came back for Kruger and a little bit of Rice. They’ll be back. 


Here’s the recipe for rock bottom. You fire Dave Rice midseason, bungle the Mick Cronin and Chris Beard situation, and then hand the reins to Marvin Menzies. Since that sequence of events, UNLV has been scraping the bottom of the barrel. The idiocy of said moves is unquestioned, but the constant flux and inconsistency destabilized everything. Not only did the Rebels need a good coach, but they lacked the foundation and continuity of a leader who could mold the program in his vision for years to come. 


Say what you will about Otzelberger thus far, but 6-8 to start your career as the head man at UNLV isn’t doing yourself any favors. Sure, the team could just as easily be 10-4 right now, but no one wants to hear that. They want results. 


Otzelberger is outspoken. Anyone who listens to his pressers and interviews can agree on that much. He’s outspoken vocally, where he insists that UNLV can return to prominence and that he is the one who can lead them there. Otzelberger is also outspoken in terms of the demands he sets forth for his players, and what he expects from them.

He wants guys that eat, sleep, and live basketball. He wants his players to embody the boundless passion that he has for the sport, pumping through his veins to bleed forth from their wounds as they dive for loose balls and emerge from scrums fighting tooth and nail for every possession. The problem with that this season is that he doesn’t have those guys across the board on this current roster. 


Coach Otzelberger is trying. After reports trickled out of the locker room that his inherited and mostly re-recruited team isn’t entirely on board with his mission statement, the coach decided for wholesale changes in his starting lineup. Instead of Hardy and Tillman, he opted for former walk-ons Nick Blair and Marvin Coleman as opposed to players swimming against the current, or have their thoughts on the NBA.

Otzelberger is preaching a new message that if individual players didn’t appreciate the opportunity they were getting at UNLV, well, then they could watch from the bench. Those that do understand what they have will start over them. 


It’s only been two games under this new mantra, and the opponents have been lowly types, but the results have been wins. The effort was noticeably more staunch, the defense more locked in, and the execution slightly better. Everyone seems to have gotten the message. So far. 


Ultimately it might only be a bandaid on a sliced jugular, but right now, it’s working. 


On the other hand, Otzelberger is rather outspoken in terms of his actions as well. The scholarship situation at UNLV is very telling. There are only 3 seniors on the team whose eligibility expires after this season. As it stands, Otzelberger’s 2020 recruiting class consists of 6 signees. I’m no mathematician, but something’s gotta give with those numbers.

It’s no secret that Otzelberger is fed up. It’s no secret that he’s made it known that guys are auditioning for next season. It’s also no secret that the turnover could consist of more than just 6 new players. Otzelberger has had success at Iowa State and Washington in recruiting grad transfers. There are still unsigned players like Devin Tillis in the 2020 class that could come in and help UNLV


The Rebels started 1-0 in conference play, but the rest of their MWC slate begins in earnest with Utah State today. Either the current Rebels will continue to buy-in like they have the last two games, or the conference will decide that Otzelberger will be starting mostly from scratch as he puts down his real foundation in 2020. As mentioned above, UNLV can lure players. Time will tell, but it will be fascinating to see how January and February pan out for the 13th coach since Tark in the win-loss column. It will be even more interesting to see what that does to the future roster. 

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