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2019-2020 UNLV Runnin’ Rebel Basketball Season Preview

Basketball season is here, and UNLV fans are eager to see the new era of Runnin’ Rebel Basketball 

UNLV Introduces T.J. Otzelberger Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

There is plenty of excitement and anticipate around Las Vegas ahead of this UNLV Basketball season. It is year one of the T.J. Otzelberger era and with a new coach comes a new style of basketball. Otzelberger coaches an up-tempo style of basketball, with a heavy emphasis on three-pointers and points in the paint. Its music to the ears of many fans who remember the Runnin’ Rebels of the Jerry Tarkanian era, where they played a similar brand of basketball.

What is similar between these two eras of UNLV Basketball is the conversation from the players and coaches is centered around defense. Defense is at the forefront of every UNLV practice, as Otzelberger wants his defense to lead into the offense. UNLV will play a defense similar to Virginia, pack-line defense, aiming to limit teams driving into the paint. They will also put a lot of pressure on the ball handler to try and force turnovers. It all goes back to the idea of defense leading to easy offense, UNLV wants to be aggressive defensively which turns into an aggressive push offensively.

UNLV fired Marvin Menzies the day after the Runnin’ Rebels were eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Tournament. While UNLV had won its most conference games (11) since 2010-2011, there was not much buzz or excitement around the program. Attendance was at its lowest point since UNLV moved to the Thomas and Mack Center and Menzies played a very boring, non-efficient, brand of basketball. There was also a disconnect between the program and the community. UNLV has put a lot of time and resources in having Otzelberger out and about in the community, which has helped so much of the hype around the season.

The Ken Pom rankings have predicted that UNLV would finish 15-16 overall with an 8-10 record in the Mountain West Conference. They are projected to finish tied for seventh in the conference, based on the preseason poll at Mountain West media days. Obviously, there is a lot of unknown about this team, but they have a lot of talented pieces. However, the ceiling is high for this group and UNLV will turn a lot of head this season. In one of the most anticipated years in recent program history, this year will be the start of getting the Runnin’ Rebels back in the national spotlight.

Roster Breakdown

Projected Starting Lineup

PG- Elijah Mitrou-Long

SG- Amauri Hardy

SG/SF- Jonah Antonio

PF- Donnie Tillman

C- Mbacke Diong

The starting lineup features a mix of returners and new players. In the backcourt is Texas transfer Elijah Mitrou-Long, who is the listed point guard. He only averaged 18 minutes per game last year at Texas, but he will be called upon to log more minutes for UNLV. While he will bring the ball up the court, expect the focal point of the offense to be Amauri Hardy. Hardy will be the driving force on offense to create plays for others and help with the spacing on the floor. Jonah Antonio comes to UNLV from a junior college in Texas. The Australian native made seven three pointers in UNLV’s exhibition win and he will be expected to be UNLV’s most efficient shooter this season.

Donnie Tillman comes to UNLV after transferring to Utah and he is the player the Runnin’ Rebels need. As a stretch-forward, he will provide a presence all over the floor. His ability to play inside and on the perimeter will help UNLV space the floor on offense. Mbacke Diong brings a solid defensive presence in the paint. He was a force defensively for UNLV last season and he must clog the paint to help UNLV’s pack-line defense. Otzelberger has said that we could see different lineups throughout the season. He will put out the best lineup that gives UNLV the best effort defensively.

Bench

Guards- Bryce Hamilton, Marvin Coleman, Jay Green, Christopher Hall, Trey Hulbert, David Jenkins (must sit out this season)

Forwards- Nick Blair, Cheickna Dembele, Vitaly Shibel, Moses Wood (must sit out this season)

UNLV has some returners from last year’s team that will be key contributors off the bench. Bryce Hamilton could benefit the most from the new offense. Last season he did not get consistent playing time and was unable to showcase his full potential. Nick Blair showed in conference play last season he will be an important role player for UNLV. Otzelberger will need him to do a little bit of everything, dive for loose balls, get rebounds and defend well.

Cheickna Dembele will serve as a back-up center. Vitaly Shibel will bring depth to the forward position and will need to shoot well to bring depth to the three-point shooters. Marvin Coleman or Jay Green, or maybe both, will see some significant playing time as backup guards. We haven’t seen much of either player in game action, but Otzelberger will need to find depth at the guard position and we will see one of those two get significant playing time.

Schedule

11/5 vs Purdue-Fort Wayne

11/9 vs Kansas State

11/12 at California

11/15 at UCLA

11/18 vs Abilene Christian

11/20 vs Texas State

11/23 vs SMU

11/26 vs Jackson State

11/30 at Cincinnati

12/4 at Fresno State*

12/7 at BYU

12/18 vs Pacific

12/21 vs Robert Morris

12/28 vs Eastern Michigan

1/1 vs Utah State*

1/4 vs Air Force*

1/8 at Boise State*

1/11 at Wyoming*

1/15 vs San Jose State*

1/18 vs New Mexico*

1/22 at UNR*

1/26 vs San Diego State*

2/1 at Colorado State*

2/5 at Utah State*

2/8 vs Fresno State*

2/12 vs UNR*

2/15 at New Mexico*

2/18 vs Colorado State*

2/22 at San Diego State*

2/26 vs Boise State*

2/29 at San Jose State*

3/4-3/7 Mountain West Tournament

*Conference Games

Schedule Analysis

The schedule is much more challenging than last years. The non-conference section has some big names like UCLA, Kansas State, and BYU. While most of those programs are not top-25 teams, they are names many college basketball fans know and provide good competition for UNLV. This is the type of schedule UNLV should be consistently playing, a type of schedule that would help the Runnin’ Rebels get an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. Just like the non-conference schedule, the Mountain West portion of UNLV’s schedule is much tougher than last year. They face Utah State, UNR, San Diego State, Boise State, New Mexico, and Fresno State twice. The schedule will be a great test for UNLV to learn about themselves and help get the program back on track.

Predictions

Record: 19-12 (10-8 MWC)

UNLV will have a winning season, both overall and in conference, in Otzelberger’s first season. As mentioned earlier, the big-name opponents are not performing to what they usually are, which means UNLV some of those games. I see UNLV beating California, SMU, and BYU. In conference, UNLV should be solid at home and I see them getting big road wins at Fresno State, New Mexico, and Boise State. As I mentioned earlier, it is all about learning with this team. This group of players, with these coaches, in this system, in this conference has to learn how to win and overcome obstacles that will come up. This is a talented group with a lot of potential in a conference with a lot of unknowns, but I am confident this group will lay a solid foundation they can build upon in the future.

Hardy and Tillman make All-Conference Teams

Before UNLV’s “Big Three,” (Hardy, Tillman and Jenkins, when he is eligible next year), comes into full effect, we will see the one-two punch of Hardy and Tillman. This is a combination that will work well in the new offense, the play-making guard and stretch forward. Both players, playing together, will elevate the others’ game. Hardy will take another step forward now that he will start and have a much larger role in the offense. Tillman will be another driving force, along with Hardy, in the offense. He averaged 10.6 points per game coming off the bench at Utah, that will increase this season. The duo will be a matchup nightmare for most teams in the conference and both will make an all-conference team.

Diong will make MW All-Defense Team

With how much Otzelberger and his players talk about defense, at least one Runnin’ Rebel is guaranteed a spot on the Mountain West All-Defense Team. Looking into my crystal ball, I see that being Mbacke Diong. He will be anchoring UNLV’s defense, which will help their transition offense. Otzelberger wants him as a rim protector, which he is capable of doing. For a big, Diong has the ability to sprint hard down the floor, which will help get UNLV set on defense. Diong took a big step last year into a starting role, and he will take another one this year as the leader of UNLV’s defense.

Tillman wins Newcomer of the Year

Tillman was a key piece to Utah’s bench, which lead him to being named the PAC-12’s Sixth Man of the Year in 2019. Now he will be playing a lot more minutes and have a much bigger role in Otzelberger’s offense. He is 6-foot-7 and can be dynamic in the post and at the three-point line. He should not have too much of a problem adjusting to the Mountain West Conference, after coming from the PAC-12. Tillman can be the type of player that takes over a game, along with Hardy, and that is something UNLV is in desperate need for. He will shine in the conference and win the Newcomer of the Year award.

Hamilton wins MW Sixth Man of the Year

One player I am excited to watch this season is Bryce Hamilton. He did not play much under Menzies, but he will have an opportunity to shine in this new offense. He was a four-star recruit who was not given much of an opportunity to succeed under the old coaching staff. He will have more responsibilities and have a greater role this year, and he will rise to the occasion. After Mitrou-Long and Hardy, there is not much guard depth, and Hamilton adds to that. He will provide the spark off the bench and help add to UNLV’s scoring attack.

Other Team Predictions

Leading Scorer: Amauri Hardy

Assist Leader: Amauri Hardy

Rebound Leader: Mbacke Diong

Top Shooter: Jonah Antonio

Best Defender: Mbacke Diong

Breakout Star: Bryce Hamilton

This season will be a fun one to watch. As Otzelberger has said so many times prior to the season, this year is about learning and getting better every day. IF you are asking me what success this year is, I’ll say this; win 18-22 games, have a winning conference record, develop an identity on offense and defense, win on the road in conference and win some of the big non-conference games, and be better at the end of the season than what you were at the beginning. We will watch this team grow in front of our eyes and hopefully this is the beginning of Runnin’ Rebel Basketball being back.