Rebels basketball:

UNLV counting on local walk-ons with season on the line

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John Locher / AP

UNLV’s Nick Blair (20) reacts after scoring against New Mexico during the first half on an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, in Las Vegas.

Wed, Mar 13, 2019 (2 a.m.)

The Rebel Room

Tournament time

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Ray Brewer, Mike Grimala and Case Keefer prep for the Mountain West Conference tournament by breaking down what UNLV's first-round matchup against San Diego State on Thursday means for the program in the long-term. That includes forays into Marvin Menzies' job security, Kris Clyburn's development and boosters' influence.

If UNLV is going to make some noise in the Mountain West tournament — and the team believes it can — the Rebels are going to need big contributions from their best players.

For a squad that has been built in an unorthodox manner under head coach Marvin Menzies, that means counting on not one, but two non-scholarship players to come through against San Diego State in Thursday’s MWC quarterfinal matchup.

In the case of Noah Robotham and Nick Blair, they’ve been doing it all season. Neither is a typical “walk-on,” but both stepped up in a big way to help the Rebels to a 17-13 record (11-7 MWC) and a fifth-place finish in the league.

Robotham, a fifth-year senior, graduated from Bishop Gorman in 2014 and went to Akron, where he played on scholarship for three seasons. He established himself as a heady point guard and a consistent outside shooter, then transferred back home to UNLV before the 2017-18 season.

Blair took a similar route. He played with Robotham at Bishop Gorman, graduated in 2015 and accepted a scholarship offer from Idaho. Blair played there for two years before returning to Las Vegas and sitting out last season as a redshirt.

With roster spots at a premium during Menzies’ rebuilding effort, both players agreed to eschew scholarships and pay the in-state tuition rate ($3,336 per semester) in order to suit up for the Rebels.

And it’s a good thing they did. Robotham emerged as an elite offensive threat as the 2018-19 season wore on, shooting 41.1 percent from 3-point range in Mountain West play and finishing second in offensive rating (trailing only San Diego State freshman center Nathan Mensah, who averaged 5.6 points on mostly dunks and putbacks). Blair carved out a prominent bench role, played solid defense as a small-ball post player and hit 36.1 percent of his 3-point attempts.

Blair finished as UNLV’s individual leader in plus/minus rating, as the Rebels outscored opponents by 23 points in his 367 minutes (+2.5 per 40 minutes).

Robotham said his former high-school teammate just knows how to play winning basketball.

“Nick is a high IQ guy, obviously — he went to Bishop Gorman,” Robotham said with a laugh. “Nick is really sound. He knows his [scouting report]. He’s one of those players, if he never transferred he would be a senior, so he has a lot of knowledge for the game. I can tell Nick to do 50 things before the game and he’ll do all 50 things.”

In addition to his sterling offensive rating, Robotham scored 10.9 points per game in league play and also led the Mountain West in assists (6.1 per game) and assists-to-turnover ratio (4.8).

Despite those credentials, Robotham was left off the conference’s official All-Mountain West teams, not even garnering enough votes from the league’s coaches to merit a third-team selection.

Robotham said he’s more concerned with extending UNLV’s season with a win over San Diego State than he is about individual accolades.

“My whole life I’ve only prioritized winning,” he said, “because when you’re prioritizing winning, there’s no opinion in that. You’re either a winner or you’re not a winner. That’s one thing I’ve always focused on since I was a little kid. That’s the only thing I care about.”

Expect to see Robotham and Blair on the floor a lot against SDSU. In the regular season, UNLV was +1.7 per 40 minutes when they shared the court; without one or both of them, the Rebels’ plus/minus dropped to +0.4.

Pretty good for a couple of walk-ons.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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