UNLV Basketball is just past the halfway point of its season. They are 8-9 overall, and 3-1 in Mountain West play. The Rebels are in year one of the T.J. Otzelberger era, and there have been a fair share of growing pains. There have also been some highlights and players who have stepped up to surprise us. Now seems to be a good time to breakdown this UNLV team and grade them so far this season.
This UNLV team is very challenged offensively. The Rebels average under 70 points per game (68.4), which is ranked 258th out of 353 teams. They do not have a lot of players that can go out and get a bucket when the Rebels need it. T.J. Otzelberger was known at South Dakota State for having a fast-paced offense that scored a lot of points. Many fans were excited at the beginning of the year because Otzelberger’s offense could bring some excitement back. However, UNLV just lacks the playmakers to score at the level he wants. Next year should be different, but for now, UNLV needs games to be in the 60’s to have a chance at winning.
Defense is a constant topic of discussion when you talk to any of the players or coaches on UNLV. The Rebels play at their best when they are executing on the defensive end. Effort and energy are the two biggest factors that determine if UNLV will have a good game. If the Rebels bring the energy, and pouring out the effort defensively, they give themselves a good chance to win any game. We have seen it this year against Utah State, the Rebels can play with anyone in the conference as long as the defense brings it every night. Getting stops is a key to provide a spark to its offense. Just like Tark’s teams, defense will be the key to UNLV’s success.
Mbacke Diong A+
The most valuable player for the Rebels so far this season has been Mbake Diong. He has been the heartbeat of the team and a leader that Otzelberger has enjoyed coaching. His energy and presence is felt on the defensive end. Diong’s win share is 2.0, which means his presence on the floor is worth two wins for the Rebels. He grabs over 17% of the rebounds for the Rebels, which helps them win a lot of the battle on the boards and gets the Rebels extra possessions. What we should watch for from Diong the rest of the season is to see if he takes another step offensively. Can Diong fill in any holes of this UNLV offense? Only time will tell, and if he can, expect UNLV to be very competitive in the conference.
Amauri Hardy A-
After Diong, Hardy is the next most important player for the Rebels. Hardy has been the best pure scorer for UNLV this season. He leads the Rebels in scoring with 15.2 points per game. His best performance this season was when he scored 27 points against Kansas State. He has a lot on his shoulders as one of the leaders of the team and as the only reliable scorer for UNLV. Hardy will need to improve his defensive performance, he is a -1.3 on defensive box plus/minus. As a valuable piece of UNLV’s roster, Hardy will need to constantly produce and contribute offensively to give UNLV a chance to win.
Marvin Coleman B+
Before the season, T.J. Otzelberger awarded Marvin Coleman a full scholarship. He clearly saw something from Coleman on the practice court that we are seeing on display right now. After not getting a lot of playing time at the start of the season, Coleman has seen plenty of playing time recently. Otzelberger has put Coleman at the starting point guard position the past several games. In conference play, Coleman is averaging over 30 minutes played for game. He has stepped up nicely to give UNLV a true point guard ever since the injury to Elijah Mitrou-Long. And it looks like Coleman has played himself into a permanent spot in UNLV’s rotation for the rest of the season and for the next few years.
Nick Blair B-
Blair is another former walk-on that was awarded a scholarship. His stats will not grab any headlines, but he is fitting is role well. He is UNLV’s jack-of-all-trades, Blair can guard almost any position on the floor if the Rebels need him to. He will grab rebounds, dive for loose balls, take a foul, or get an occasional bucket, whatever the coaches need him to do. He has been a key leader in showing the other players what effort and energy Otzelberger wants from his players. Blair might not steal the show, but his impact on the game is felt.
Elijah Mitrou-Long B-
Mitrou-Long transferred to UNLV from Texas. There were some questions about him entering the season, due to his low numbers from his time at Texas. But Mitrou-Long has answered some of those questions with his production early in the season. He averaged 12.9 points per game and was shooting 36.8% from three on the nine games he played, before he broke his left thumb. There are two questions for Mitrou-Long once he comes back. Can he maintain his productivity? And, where will he fit in the rotation? Coleman has stepped up nicely in time without Mitrou-Long. With the Rebels recent struggles on offense, he could be the addition the Rebels desperately need.
Bryce Hamilton: C+
Hamilton is trending in the right direction. He seems to be finding his confidence and appears to be feeling more comfortable in Otzelberger’s system. Hamilton did not get a lot of playing time last season and had been off to a disappointing start to this season, but he is turning a corner. In conference play, Hamilton is averaging 18.8 points per game. He is a player that benefits when UNLV runs in transition. He has been a great The biggest thing for Hamilton is staying aggressive and be a consistent contributor to the Rebels the rest of the season.
Jonah Antonio C+
To be fair to Antonio, he was injured and missed six games. However, he has not been producing like we thought he would be. An area of strength entering the season was his three-point shooting. However, he is shooting under 30% from three and is making less that two three-pointers on average, per game. He is coming off his worst performance against Boise State where he shot 12.5% from three. Better days are to come for Antonio. He should get more comfortable through the rest of the season. Once he finds his groove, he will be the three-point shooter the Rebels expected.
Vitaliy Shibel C-
Shibel transferred to UNLV from Arizona State, where he played sparingly. He was expected to be a forward that can stretch the floor and step out and make a three, but that has not been happening. He averages only one attempt from three a game. Shibel averages less than 14 minutes (13.5) of playing time per game. His low amount of playing time could be a reason why his offensive production has been almost nonexistent. However, as the season has gone one, Otzelberger has seen Shibel as an effort player. He has been someone who dives for loose balls and helps set up other players.
Donnie Tillman D+
Donnie Tillman’s low grade has little to do with his on court performance. He had 28 points in the win over Fresno State, and is averaging 12 points a game. What has been frustrating are some off-court issue for Tillman. Twice he has been taken out of the starting lineup due to being late. Against Air Force, he was late to shoot-around and did not play at all. He is such a valuable player to this Rebel team. They will need him on the floor against quality teams like San Diego State and New Mexico to give the Rebels a chance at winning those games. Tillman might be a one-and-done at UNLV. There is still a lot of season left to play and the ball is in Tillman’s court in regards to his future.
UNLV took a risk hiring T.J. Otzelberger, he was a young up-and-coming coach who had only three seasons of head coaching experience at the Division 1 level prior to the season. Ever since he took over, he has been clear on what he expects from his team. He has not been afraid to sit guys to send a message on what he expects from his players, which is exactly what a first year coach needs to do to establish his culture. There is expected to be major roster turnover next season with the large recruiting class he is bringing in. Otzelberger has his vision and he is clear on what it is. He is committed to basketball and building a winner at UNLV his way.
UNLV has been through its ups and downs this season, which is expected. It is tough to see the offense struggle this much, but in time, it should get better. UNLV has had some tough losses against Texas State and Pacific, not to mention all the close overtime games they have played. There was no expectation of UNLV going to the NCAA Tournament, or winning the conference. What should be expected is significant progress and growth from the beginning of the season. There are players who have made significant progress this year and could be a big part of the program’s success moving forward. With the players coming into the program and the opponents that will be on the schedule, next season should be a year the Rebels are fighting for a postseason tournament bid.