Kris Clyburn looked out of place, his slender frame unprepared for the rigors of Division I basketball and his skills yet lacking. In January of his first season with UNLV, the then-sophomore forward scored just 13 points — not in one game but in the entire month.
That was three years ago, when UNLV limped to an 11-21 record in coach Marvin Menzies’ maiden season.
You couldn’t help wondering if those players who Menzies settled for when forming his initial roster late in the recruiting process would ever amount to anything more than wasted scholarships. Yet, Clyburn emerged as one of UNLV’s best players this season, averaging 13.9 points per game in becoming a third-team all-Mountain West pick.
His progress, albeit just one athlete, shows Menzies can develop players. It’s one of many reasons why Menzies deserves another season, if not another two seasons, to complete his vision of transforming the program.
You saw bits and pieces of progress this season, when the Rebels had their first winning record in the Mountain West in five years, but still couldn’t clear the 20-win hurdle and will again miss the postseason. A 63-55 loss Thursday to San Diego State in the Mountain West tournament quarterfinals was a similar result of the past three years — the Rebels went stone-cold on offense, allowed an inexcusable offensive rebound in the final minute to essentially seal the loss, and just didn’t have enough talent to beat an average-at-best opponent.
But is that enough to send Menzies packing? Absolutely not. Keeping Menzies is about more than on-court results — it’s about doing what is right.
You can’t cycle through coaches every three years because some fans are disenchanted with the pace of the rebuild. You can’t hire Menzies with the understanding that he will get the proper time to flip the program’s fortunes and then pump the brakes on the strategy midway through the project. And, most important, you can’t attract a quality replacement because coaches, especially a coach of quality, isn’t going to jump at the chance of having just three years for a rebuild.
Here’s how bad the coaching carousel turnover is: The Rebels are in the last year of paying former coach Dave Rice. If Menzies is fired, the university would owe him two years’ worth of pay, meaning they would have gone five seasons of paying two coaches. At that rate, they could have hired someone more highly regarded in the coaching ranks.
You can’t help but be intrigued by the young talent on the roster, all of whom have made significant improvements this season. If Menzies is dismissed, his young nucleus of Amauri Hardy, Joel Ntambwe, Bryce Hamilton and Cheikh Diong won’t stay around. The new coach, no matter who it is, will have to start from scratch. And, just like that, the vicious cycle of rebuilding begins anew.
Athletic Director Desiree Reed-Francois is on record saying she will evaluate the program at the conclusion of the season. Similar to how she’s given football coach Tony Sanchez an ultimatum to reach a bowl game next fall in his fifth season or lose his job, a similar path will be presented to Menzies. That path is simple: Win more than 20 games, finish in the top three in the Mountain West and make the NCAA Tournament. The patience of the past three years needs to be replaced with urgency.
The path also needs to include improving the schedule. The Rebels went from playing a who’s who of nonleague opponents under Rice to only scant opportunities to grab quality wins under Menzies. Those wins are vital in building a tournament resume, and even more critical in getting a team prepared to compete in the Mountain West.
The Rebels are still a year or two away, and although the signs of progress aren’t obvious to all, they are present. That’s especially true for those inside the program, many of whom were shocked at the rumors — whether real or fabricated on social media — about Menzies being ousted following his third season (effectively his second). After the San Diego State loss, Menzies expressed no concern about his job being in jeopardy.
Let’s hope he is right.
Menzies deserves your patience a little longer. What he’s done in three years, with Clyburn and many others, shows the Rebels are close to getting over the hump.