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How Bucknell Saved UNLV’s Season

From .500 to the top of the conference. How did UNLV get there?

Freshman Joel Ntambwe goes up for a basket versus Colorado State.
Las Vegas Review-Journal

The Rebels are 3-0 in conference play, including an 80-69 thumping over New Mexico last weekend. It’s a start that few could have predicted after a bumpy, non-conference schedule left them at 6-6.

A confluence of factors can be traced back to the Rebels surprising start in conference play, but they all relate back to one thing: Coach Menzies finally found a starting lineup.

When conference play began, the Rebels debuted a different starting lineup. Seniors Kris Clyburn and Noah Robotham, sophomore Amauri Hardy, and freshmen Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Joel Ntawambe took the floor. The Rebels had undergone a lot of change in the past month to get there.

UNLV has been without Juiston since their win over Brigham Young and the Rebels had a huge void to fill in the post, specifically on the glass. Menzies inserted rangy freshman forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua to get the job done. Before Juiston’s injury, Tchatchoua had never played more than fifteen minutes in a college game. He has flourished with the extra playing time, grabbing nearly eight rebounds per game with double-doubles against Indiana State and Colorado State. Sticking Tchatchoua in the lineup was a direct substitution: big man for big man. Sophomore Cheikh Mbacke Diong stayed in the lineup and seemed like he would benefit from Juiston’s absence.

Without Juiston, the Rebels came back from a 17-point deficit to beat Brigham Young on a last second shot from Noah Robotham. They beat a strong Hawaii team by 14 on their own court in Honolulu to improve to 6-4.

Then, they got torched for 97 points by Bucknell on Christmas Day.

Bucknell’s performance hammered home a common thread that had appeared all season: three point shooting and other teams had multiple big men starting, but at least one of them could stretch the floor.

UNLV didn’t have either.

As a team, they shot below 30% from three-point range. Between Juiston, Diong, and Tchamwa Tchatchoua, the Rebels didn’t have a post player that had three-point range.

Well, until freshman Joel Ntambwe stepped up and Amauri Hardy stepped in.

Ntambwe was a three-star recruit who committed to UNLV over Providence, Wichita State, and Tennessee. He was pegged as a defense-first recruit with some offensive polish and upside when he arrived on campus this fall. He had been a starter all season, but his offensive role was limited with Juiston’s prominence in the post and Mbacke Diong’s emergence as a complimentary piece. Coach Menzies started utilizing Ntambwe more after Juiston’s injury and he responded by being the conference player of the week in late December and dropping a career high 31 points on Wyoming.

Sophomore guard Amauri Hardy has been on the radar for Rebels’ fans since a breakout 22 point performance when the University of Cincinnati came to Vegas and escaped with a 65-61 win. Hardy showcased a strong interior game for a guard and outstanding playmaking ability. When Hardy has more than four assists, the Rebels are 5-1. When he doesn’t, they’re 2-4. Hardy had been on the bench, in favor of seniors Noah Robotham and Kris Clyburn. The two seniors formed a traditional backcourt, with one pass-first guard and one slashing shooter.

During the Diamond Head Classic, Clyburn fell into a funk. He went 3 for 14 from three-point range while the team dropped two games, including the Bucknell blowout, that they were favored to win. Contrasted with Hardy’s steady play in the sixth man role, it seemed like a matter of time before the two guards swapped roles to fit the two guard, one forward, two big man lineup the Rebels had used all season.

The Rebels couldn’t shoot from three-point range at all. Before conference play, they had just two games where they shot better than 40% as a team. However, they did have three of the top thirteen offensive rebounders in the conference, according to KenPom advanced metrics. So, Coach Menzies made two changes to jump start their offense: he benched Mbacke Diong and inserted Amauri Hardy into the lineup and told the Rebels to shoot more threes.

The idea is that with their offensive rebounding, the Rebels can retrieve more of their misses and get more shots which increases their offensive output. Since doing so, they’re averaging 75.3 points per game, a full point higher than in the non-conference. Digging into advanced metrics, it’s made their offense the third-most efficient in conference play per KenPom.

Despite the focus on offense, the lineup shift has proven even more effective on defense. The Rebels’ switch to a three guard lineup has allowed them to patrol the perimeter faster and more effectively. Opponents are shooting just 26.5% from three-point range against the Rebels in conference play. The vastly improved defense means that there is less pressure on the offense to hurry up to score or come from behind.

Between their game against Air Force tonight and their upcoming matchup against San Jose State, there’s a very real possibility that UNLV ends the week 5-0 atop the Mountain West. Neither team has shot the well from beyond the arc. The Falcons are the team that has coughed up the most offensive rebounds in conference play; UNLV has the most offensive rebounds of any team in conference play. It’s quite a turnaround from late December when there were mutterings if Menzies was the right man to lead the Runnin’ Rebels.

Fans were less than pleased after UNLV’s loss to Bucknell.

UNLV is starting to gel as a unit and their much heralded recruiting classes under Marvin Menzies have started to pay dividends. Much of the focus in the MW this season has been on traditional powers that haven’t lived up to expectations. In all this, we’ve missed the beginning of the climb back to the top for UNLV.