In a short amount of time, T.J. Otzelberger has built a name for himself as one of the country’s most innovative head coaches when it comes to putting the ball in the basket.
During his three years at South Dakota State, his teams rang up a 70-33 record, made two NCAA tournaments and ranked in the top 20 in scoring twice. Last year, the Jackrabbits were the nation’s No. 4 offense at 84.5 points per game.
Otzelberger was hired to bring similar scoring punch to UNLV, but through the first three weeks of preseason practice much of his focus has been at the other end of the court. After Tuesday’s practice, the coach said as much as 80 or 90 percent of his coaching has been done on defense.
Last year’s Runnin’ Rebels squad ranked No. 215 in KenPom.com’s adjusted defense, and Otzleberger knows that’s not going to be good enough.
“I looked at the numbers of our team last year and I think we were in the 250, 260 defensive range as a program [at UNLV],” Otzelberger said. “I think we’ve got to make our biggest progress — as much as we’re excited about offense — on the defensive side of the ball and try to get that number turned upside down and be one of the top defensive teams.”
That process starts with installing his preferred defensive system. Otzelberger employed a man-to-man defense almost exclusively at South Dakota State, using that alignment on 95.6 percent of possessions according to Synergy Sports data. The Rebels will line up in a similar scheme, playing the same type of pack-line defense that top teams like Virginia have used to great effect in recent years.
South Dakota State never ranked better than 126th in adjusted defense under Otzelberger, but this UNLV squad should have enough intriguing pieces to field an effective defensive unit.
Fifth-year senior Elijah Mitrou-Long was brought in to provide some defense in the backcourt, and he believes he and his teammates are taking to the new system.
“It’s been a little different for us,” Mitrou-Long said. “[Otzelberger] came in here making us play pack-line defense. I’ve never really played like that before, but it works. It’s hard. It’s not easy. Just helping each other out, really communicating, really getting up and pressuring the ball, don’t let the guy feel comfortable, just stuff like that. The nuances to the defense, the little things matter and once we get that right I think we’ll be a good defensive team.”
Positioning is one of the keys to mastering the pack-line defense. Players have to cut off penetration and take proper angles while working as a team; if one player is out of position, the entire defense is compromised.
Mitrou-Long said Otzelberger has made those details one of his top teaching points so far in practice.
“Your feet have to be at a certain place at a certain time,” Mitrou-Long said. “You’ve got to take a certain angle when you’re closing out, you can’t just take an angle anywhere. You’ve got to take a certain angle on a guy when he has the ball, hands up, two hands up, just stuff like that that he really impounds in our brain every day in practice so we can get it right.”
While the fans understandably want to see what kind of fireworks the Rebels can produce on offense this season, Otzelberger doesn’t want his players thinking that way. For Otzelberger, the remaining practices leading up to the Nov. 5 season opener will be about getting his guys to buy into his message on the defensive end.
“If they love this game and they want to win, then it takes what it takes,” he said. “Sprinting back on defense might not be the most fun thing, but if you care about your teammates, you care about winning, that’s something you’re going to do every time.
“In basketball, it’s defending and rebounding that kind of sets the tone for the game,” Otzelberger continued, “and those are the things we need to be really good at this year.”