How small are the Runnin’ Rebels these days? So small that four-guard lineups are yesterday’s news. In UNLV’s 66-63 win at No. 4 San Diego State on Saturday, it was the Rebels’ five-guard lineup that was all the rage.
T.J. Otzelberger has unveiled the wrinkle several times this season, but never was it more impactful than in UNLV’s biggest win of the season. Otzelberer downsized for long stretches of the second half, and on some of the most important possessions of the game the Rebels were playing 6-foot-5 sophomore Jay Green at center.
Green, who is a guard by trade, entered the contest having played just 106 minutes on the season. But after toying with Green at center for short stretches in recent weeks, Otzelberger was confident enough to play him 11 minutes on the biggest stage.
Green is not an offensive player — he attempted zero shots against SDSU, and he’s 1-of-8 from the free-throw line this season — but he chipped in by grabbing three rebounds and dishing out an assist.
After Monday’s practice, Otzelberger said Green has earned the right to play important minutes despite the modest numbers.
“Jay Green is a tremendous energy guy, a high-character guy,” Otzelberger said. “He’s a young man that didn’t get a lot of opportunities early, and now he’s put himself in a spot where he’s really making impactful plays to help us win.”
UNLV deployed Green as the “center” in five-guard lineups for six minutes and 23 seconds against San Diego State; during that time, the Rebels outscored SDSU, 12-4.
Most of that margin was a product of the stingy defense played by the small-ball Rebels. San Diego State is ranked No. 10 in adjusted offense, according to KenPom.com, but with Green at center UNLV held the Aztecs to 2-of-10 shooting while forcing two turnovers.
UNLV likes to switch screens, and Otzelberger said Green has earned his confidence in that department.
“He does a great job,” Otzelberger said. “A lot of the time when he’s out there at the 5 position we switch screens and handoffs, so he ends up on a guard — which is fine.”
To that point, Green’s shining moment came when he found himself singled up against San Diego State guard Malachi Flynn, the presumptive Mountain West Player of the Year. With one minute to play and UNLV protecting a 62-58 lead, Flynn isolated Green on the right wing after a switch and tried to shake him with two crossovers. But Green, a native of Australia, was comfortable being on an island and stuck close. With his drive attempts cut off, Flynn eventually settled for a pull-up jump shot, and in his haste he lost the ball in mid-air; it sailed out of bounds for a turnover.
Elijah Mitrou-Long earned plenty of love for scoring a team-high 19 points in the win, but he was quick to point out Green’s defensive stop as being just as important.
“He had a great possession at the end guarding Malachi,” Mitrou-Long said. “I think that was one of the biggest plays a lot of people don’t talk about. Walled him up and didn’t let him score. He knows what he’s doing, man.”
Green may not make that kind of impact every night, as Otzelberger said his usage of five-guard lineups will depend on different in-game factors. But if a situation arises where the Rebels need to get small — super small — they know Green can give them a boost.
And he can do it without attempting a single shot.
“Jay Green knows his role,” Mitrou-Long said. “You know he’s not going to come in the game and dribble-dribble-dribble-shoot, or try and go and break off plays. He comes in and gives us energy, he gets rebounds, he guards the best player if he needs to and he can guard the biggest player if he needs to.”