By: Darrell Harris
Walking off their home floor following a loss in the Mountain West conference tournament, a certain somber Runnin’ Rebels squad was headed for an off-season with more questions than answers. Would coach Menzies be brought back? What will the roster look like next season? When will the Rebels be back in the big dance? 2 months later and we have some answers to these questions, but it’s been a journey.
The city of Las Vegas has grown into a respectable, and prideful, sports town. In just two seasons, the Vegas Golden Knights have established themselves as a legit NHL contender. The Las Vegas Lights are a budding MLS franchise; and while the Las Vegas Aces are the newest WNBA organization, off the court they are already one of the most popular brands in the league. Whenever the Raiders arrive, Las Vegas will be represented nationally in sports like never before.
That’s a lot of development for a city in less than a decade. But, the heart of sports in Sin City resides at the Thomas & Mack Center. Recent years haven’t been the best for the Runnin’ Rebels, but the history of the program and tradition runs deep. The city does not forget who brought them their first sports championship. In any local Las Vegas store, you’re likely to see a 1990 NCAA Championship banner somewhere.
But, I’m not here to bring you down memory lane. Instead, let’s discuss the 2020 Runnin’ Rebels, coached by the newly acquired T.J. Otzelberger.
Here is a timeline of events that got us here.
Coach Menzies Let Go
To some this was a surprise. Former head coach Marvin Menzies was let go after the third year of a five-year contract with UNLV. In that span the Runnin’ Rebels increased their Mountain West standing each season. Mind you, Coach Menzies accepted the job in 2016 and there were only two scholarship players left on the entire roster.
“Well [Coach Menzies] didn’t get enough time to truly establish himself,” said UNLV Freshman Kendall Gilliam whom attended nearly every home game this season. While three years is a sufficient sample size to analyze a coach’s performance, you have to feel for Coach Menzies who never got to see his class of recruits reach their full potential.
Soon to follow, incoming recruits Ethan Anderson and Josh Pierre-Louis both de-committed from UNLV. Ethan has since signed to play for the University of Southern California.
The coaching change hit the team hard.
Jalen Hamilton, a freshman student manager with the team, stated in an interview that the Coach’s departure likely influenced multiple players to transfer.
A breaking point appeared to be on the horizon at this point in the offseason. Team morale was down coming off Coach Menzies’ departure. The comradery that was strengthened during conference is no longer as strong as players now take into consideration what is the best decision for their individual future. If I were a player, I’d have to explore my options as well.
One by one, the announcements began coming out. Nearly every player from the previous season placed their name in the transfer portal between March and now. At one point, half the roster was up in the air and nightmares of the 2016 offseason came back around.
Freshman forward Joel Ntambwe received notable interest, and may have went on an unofficial visit to UConn. Instead of transferring to a new school, Joel decided to enter his name into the 2019 NBA Draft. Meanwhile, freshman big man Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua fielded interest as well, declaring his intent to transfer to Baylor University.
Not all players on the roster are accounted for yet. But, Runnin’ Rebel fans can take a sigh of relief knowing that Guard Amauri Hardy will be returning. Hardy had the second highest usage rating on the team last year. Bryce Hamilton, Mbacke Diong, and Cheikna Dembele all have assured they are staying at UNLV as well.
The Otzelberger Era
The rest of March was consisted of UNLV searching for the right head coach to lead the program in a new direction. Many names were speculated to fill the vacancy – from Rick Pitino, to Mike Miller, to Becky Hammond. But, athletic director Desiree Reed-Francios found the person she wanted, and it wasn’t who many expected.
I asked Jalen Hamilton what Coach Otzelberger and the new staff bring to the table that can take the team to the next level, and his answer was simple – experience. Coach T.J. is known as a keen recruiter and offensive coach. He then found great success by turning South Dakota State into yearly NCAA Tournament contenders, winning back-to-back Summit League Conference titles, and being named Summit League coach of the year.
In an article from August 2018, Mid-major madness dubbed Coach Otzelberger as the ‘hottest mid-major coaching commodity’ in the country. The more research I do on coach Otz, the more I feel confident that there wasn’t a better candidate available.
Surely, Freshman Kendall Gilliam is excited for the next season from the Runnin’ Rebels. “They lost some players and you got new guys coming in so they got work to do,” he said.
Some of those new guys coming in include graduate transfers Elijah Mitrou-Long from The University of Texas and Vitaliy Shibel from Arizona State University. Coach T.J. has made his mark by bringing in these veterans who will both be eligible to play this upcoming season. Things are looking bright in the future as well following the news that South Dakota State standout transfer David Jenkins committed to UNLV. Jenkins opted for the Runnin’ Rebels over Gonzaga and will have to redshirt one season under NCAA policy.
On the court, UNLV is shaping up to be a different squad next year that will flow better offensively and continue to play hard defense. The outlook of the Mountain West conference will be very different next year, with many eyes on UNLV. As a Mountain West conference charter member, a return to prominence in the conference would be a welcome sight.
We’re watching Coach T.J. place his bets in Las Vegas, and there’s a chance he can win big. Fans should still temper their first year expectations. The city is itching to get back in the NCAA tournament or lay claim to a Mountain West title, but things must naturally unfold. As they say. trust the process.