It has been almost 10 months since fans last saw UNLV’s men basketball team in action, and judging by the potential on the roster, it might have been worth the wait. The 2020-21 squad could be the program’s best in almost a decade if everything goes right.
Here are five key numbers to monitor as UNLV looks to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013.
UNLV’s best 3-point shooter last year, Elijah Mitrou-Long, hit 34.5% of his attempts from beyond the arc. The national average was 33.5%, meaning that aside from the since-graduated Mitrou-Long, the rest of the UNLV roster shot below average from the 3-point line. That’s not good.
Coach T.J. Otzelberger will have more shooting at his disposal this season. Three newcomers have already shot better than 34.5% somewhere at the college level: Junior guard David Jenkins hit 45.3% in his most recent season at South Dakota State, sophomore forward Moses Wood made 37.3% at Tulane, and junior forward Edoardo Del Cadia shot 37.7% in junior college. That’s more like it.
More shooters will mean more spacing, and if there’s one thing Otzelberger knows how to do, it’s exploit open space to create efficient offense. Last year’s squad had to become a grind-it-out team in order to win, but the 2020-21 version should score at a higher rate and be more fun to watch on the offensive end of the floor.
Out of the 13 scholarship players on the roster, six are true freshmen. That means nearly half of this year’s roster will be young, scrawny players who’ll need a map app to find their way to the Thomas & Mack Center on opening night.
Not every freshman will earn a defined role, but UNLV does need to get some production from that group. Forward Devin Tillis looks to be the most ready to contribute right away, thanks to his toughness and passing, and guard Nick Blake—the highest rated of the freshmen—is too talented not to get 10-15 minutes per game.
The rest of the guys—center Jhaylon Martinez, forward Reece Brown and guards Donavan Yap and Isaac Lindsey—are question marks, and they probably will be for the entire season. They might help on some nights and be liabilities on others. It will be up to the coaching staff to navigate that on a nightly basis, not ideal for a team with designs on contending for the Mountain West Conference title.
That’s the number of 20-point games David Jenkins (11) and Bryce Hamilton (10) put together, respectively, during their most recent college seasons. Jenkins averaged 19.7 points at South Dakota State in 2018-19, and Hamilton scored 16 per game for UNLV last year (which he bumped up to 20.9 in conference play), so UNLV will have a pair of flamethrowers running the wings this year.
But how much is too much? The game is still played with only one basketball, so will there be enough touches, shots and points to go around? To hear Otzelberger tell it, junior Marvin Coleman will play the key role in keeping the star scorers happy.
“[Coleman] has got to be our catalyst, and he has got to command the game,” Otzelberger said of his trusted point guard. “If those guys don’t touch the ball for a period of time, it doesn’t make the offense flow the right way, so Marvin’s job is to make sure he commands everybody else.”
UNLV allowed 0.99 points per possession last year, which ranked the team 186th in defensive efficiency. There just weren’t a lot of lockdown defenders on the team, and it took almost half the season before the majority of the roster bought in and really gave 100% at that end of the court.
In terms of defense, the talent level isn’t dramatically higher this season, but a player like sophomore guard Caleb Grill should provide some tenacity on the perimeter. The coaching staff is also relying on senior center Mbacke Diong to finally put it all together and provide a rim-protecting presence in the paint.
Diong likes what he has seen of his team in practice so far. “The defense will be the anchor of this team. We will score off our defense,” Diong said. “In practice right now, everything is about defense. Our offense will flow from the defense.”
It has been seven seasons since UNLV last made the NCAA Tournament, the longest postseason drought since the program came into existence in 1969.
So, does this team have a chance of snapping that unsightly streak? It’s possible. The best shot will be through winning the conference tournament and earning an automatic bid, especially after the COVID-19 outbreak forced the team to cut some of the marquee nonconference games out of its schedule.
UNLV was picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West, but the teams perceived to be the top three—San Diego State, Utah State and Boise State—aren’t perfect by any means. If UNLV can shoot the ball markedly better than it did last year, defend the perimeter and rebound above its size, this team has an outside chance of dancing in March.
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.