After everything UNLV has been through this season — blowout losses, upset wins, COVID-19 outbreaks, injuries to star players and everything else they’ve experienced over the course of 19 games — head coach T.J. Otzelberger believes he has identified the single biggest issue facing the team as the Mountain West tournament looms.
To hear Otzelberger tell it, it hasn’t been a lack of shooting or shaky ball-handling or some tangible flaw that has held them back this season.
It’s knowing how to win.
“There’s been a pattern, if you will, that has developed throughout the season,” Otzelberger said. “Two games at Colorado State, one at Reno, one at Boise. We’ve had six games on the road against the top teams in the conference, and four of the six we’ve been in position to win in the last four minutes. Our win probability was better than 70% in those four games, and we lost all four.”
The reason UNLV sports an underwhelming 8-11 overall record (5-7 in conference play) is because the team has not yet figured out how to close. The most recent example was particularly painful, as the scarlet and gray blew a five-point lead with four minutes to play in an eventual 61-59 loss at Boise State on Feb. 13. UNLV managed just one field goal over the final 4:22 and allowed Boise to go on a game-deciding 10-1 run.
The good news is that UNLV has shown that it can hang with the better teams in the Mountain West, even if the close-but-not-good-enough pattern has been frustrating. Otzelberger believes that a team can figure out a winning formula on the fly, and that it can happen even this late in the season.
“I’m hopeful,” Otzelberger said. “We’re close. We beat Utah State at home and we’ve played three of the top five teams on the road and been right there. For our team to have that breakthrough or have that run, it takes a commitment every day to the habits that make you win. We’re seeing some of the same issues in practice that are showing up in the games, like having to get one key stop, grabbing a rebound in traffic or making a free throw late in the game. But you can change those things by being intentional and creating those habits in practice.”
To that end, UNLV has spent recent practices drilling down on late-game situations. Otzelberger and his staff have been putting the players in do-or-die scenarios on both ends of the court and emphasizing the little things that have decided games this season (too often in favor of UNLV’s opponents).
“We’ve been playing a lot of late-game situations,” Otzelberger said. “We recognize it’s been a recurring theme and so we’re trying to talk to the issue. We’re watching a lot of film on it, teaching the guys, pointing out how they communicate. I think [the players] realize it needs to be fixed.”
Communication has been a constant coaching point throughout the season.
The coaches are still waiting for a player to step up and assume the vocal leadership role that was supposed to belong to junior point guard Marvin Coleman. Since Coleman’s season ended due to a leg fracture, there has been a communication vacuum on the sidelines and in team huddles, to the point where Otzelberger believes it has directly cost UNLV some games.
“Last year we had Marvin and Eli,” Otzelberger said, referring to the 2019-20 team’s double point-guard lineup with Coleman and senior Elijah Mitrou-Long. “We won that game at Fresno in double overtime; Eli didn’t play in that one but Marvin did a great job, and then we started winning those close games. Having that communication is a factor. It usually comes from your point guard, but everyone needs to talk through what needs to happen.”
Since Coleman was lost for the year, UNLV has used guards David Jenkins, Bryce Hamilton, Caleb Grill and Nick Blake to share point guard duties. The issue is that while each of those players have very useful skill sets and have been generally productive, none is a true point guard.
And that’s a job that factors very heavily into winning close games.
“I understand it’s not easy,” Otzelberger said. “If you’ve never communicated in the huddle like a point guard does — a point guard comes into the huddle late in the game and says, ‘Remember, here’s where they run the high ball screen, make sure we execute our coverages, get over the screen and hedge it this way, and then make sure on the back side we don’t get back cut, and then when we go down the other way we’re running horns double fist, and let’s get a paint touch, don’t settle.’ All those communicative things that need to happen at that point in the game, it’d be easy to say Marvin’s out, one of you other guys do it. But they’ve never done it before, so it’s a process.”
UNLV enters the final stretch of the regular season on Friday, with a road date at San Jose State (6:30 p.m., Stadium). After playing the return game against the Spartans on Sunday, the scarlet and gray will host Fresno State for two games on Feb. 24 and Feb. 26. Then it’s on to the Mountain West tournament.
Otzelberger know his team will have to solve their late-game issues by then, or it’s going to bring about a swift and sudden end to a season that started with so much promise.
“We need that gritty, stubborn will to win,” he said.