Finally, after more than a month away from the court, the UNLV basketball team will resume its season today when they begin a two-game series at Colorado State. With such a long break between games — an unprecedented in-season occurrence — it’s hard to say exactly how this restart will go, but any basketball being played at all is good news at this point.
What will it look like when UNLV tips off? Here’s what we know (and what we don’t know) about the season restart:
Conditioning is biggest issue
UNLV practiced on Monday for the first time in 21 days, and many of the players were coming off COVID-19 infections that may have taken a physical toll. So for coach T.J. Otzelberger, the biggest concern is the team’s conditioning. That’s especially true given the opponent and the location.
Colorado State plays at a fairly brisk pace (No. 56 in tempo, according to KenPom) and the heightened elevation at Fort Collins makes fitness even more important. Otzelberger said he plans to use frequent substitutions and make use of a deeper rotation until the team catches its wind.
“What I’m hopeful of is that guys give us everything they have in the short stints they’re on the court,” Otzelberger said, “and they’re able to push through some of the fatigue, physically and mentally, from being out and that we’re able to have the depth and rotation to be able to compete.”
What will that look like? Otzelberger has opted to ride his starting five for the first five or six minutes of each half, but he could use earlier subs in an effort to keep those players fresh. And it could lead to some playing time for the freshmen at the end of the bench, with guys like guard Donavan Yap and center Jhaylon Martinez getting a chance.
The going gets tough
There will be no easing back into things for UNLV. Colorado State is 6-2 on the season and 3-1 in Mountain West play, including an impressive comeback win at San Diego State less than a week ago, so things are about to get real.
The Rams have been especially tough on defense (0.843 points per possession allowed, 13th in the nation), which could cause problems for a UNLV team that struggled to generate open shots before the program-wide shutdown. And dealing with the CSU backcourt of David Roddy (15.9 points per game) and Isaiah Stevens (13.5 points, 6.6 assists) is going to be a major challenge for UNLV guards who were largely unable to contain penetration early in the season.
Colorado State is not the opponent UNLV would have chosen under these circumstances; Otzelberger even said he has been more focused on getting his team up to speed than on scouting for CSU specifically. How all of that will play out over the two-game series remains to be seen.
UNLV is hoping to draw from the residual momentum of its last game, a resounding win at Kansas State, but that may be difficult considering it came on Dec. 5.
Anything the team is able to carry over from that day would be helpful, as the scarlet and gray put together an all-around performance that should serve as the team’s blueprint this season. Bryce Hamilton and David Jenkins combined for 43 points and nine 3-pointers, while Caleb Grill stuffed the stat sheet with 12 points, four rebounds, two assists and two steals (and one highlight-worthy alley-oop dunk). On the other end of the floor UNLV defended penetration well enough to limit Kansas State to 36.1 percent from the field and 15-of-37 from inside the arc (40.5 percent).
It took UNLV five games to produce that result. The first four games of the season were losses, and Otzelberger’s crew can’t afford a similar ramp-up after the restart. They’ve got to continue to build on that long-ago win and it has to happen almost immediately.