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Otzelberger’s big move to go small pays off

Small ball, injury update, and conference awards

UNLV v New Mexico Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

UNLV has won five games in a row, and six of its last seven. It is by far the best stretch of play by a UNLV Basketball team in a long time. With its recent winning, UNLV is fourth place in the conference and has its most conference wins since the 2007-2008 season. The fourth-place finish is also their best finish in conference since 2013-2014 when they were in third place.

In that recent streak came the upset victory on the road against San Diego State. There were also dominant offensive performances against Colorado State and San Jose State. What has been most impressive about the recent streak is how the Rebels have been playing.

T.J Otzelberger made a critical change to his lineup to play four-guards as much as possible. By going small, UNLV is able to push the ball on offense before the defense gets set.

The Rebels have been led by the trio of Elijah Mitrou-Long, Amauri Hardy, and Bryce Hamilton. The three have logged more than 30 minutes during the recent run by the Rebels. In total, UNLV has put a four-guard on the floor for at least 29 minutes the last six games.

Each player has managed to score in double figures in each game. The offensive production was expected from Hardy. There were questions about Mitrou-Long, in terms of his offensive capability, due to his low numbers at Texas.

And Bryce Hamilton has flourished into the star UNLV has been looking for. After not getting a lot of playing time under last year, Otzelbeger has helped give Hamilton the confidence and situation for him to succeed.

The offensive output has been impressive, but what is most staggering is how the Rebels have played on defense. UNLV is holding opponents to just over 65 points per game, and they are outscoring them by about 13 points per game.

With four guards, the Rebels have been able to protect the perimeter and deny teams from shooting the three ball. UNLV has held opponents to under 35 percent shooting from three in all five wins. Including three games where opponents shot 30 percent or below.

UNLV has not lost its edge on the boards they hold a plus 37 advantage on the boards during the steak.

It has taken a bit of time for Otzelberger to find the right recipe with this group of players. He has tried a number of different lineups and has had to lay the law for a few players to understand the culture he wants at UNLV.

Currently, UNLV has eight incoming recruits for the 2020 season, plus the two transfers of David Jenkins and Moses Wood. Next year’s roster will look a lot different, but what will not be different is the expectations and style of play established by Otzlberger and his staff in his first season.

Injury Update

The win Saturday against San Jose State quickly became an afterthought following the injury to Mitrou-Long. He injured his knee after he collided with a Spartan defender driving to the basket.

UNLV gave an update on Monday. The school said he suffered a “severe knee contusion.” They also said an MRI showed “no structural damage.”

His availability for the Rebels quarterfinal matchup with Boise State on Thursday is unknown. It would be likely that the fifth-year senior would do anything and everything to try and get on the floor for what could be his last game.

Otzelberger said that Mitrou-Long did not practice with the team on Tuesday and will likely be a game-time decision on Thursday.

Mitrou-Long has been a crucial part to UNLV’s recent success. He scored 20 points in the win over the Spartans and is averaging 17.6 points during UNLV’s five-game winning streak.

If he is unable to play Thursday and not available for the tournament, UNLV could have a hard time getting out of the quarterfinals.

Someone who will be available for the Rebels against the Broncos is Donnie Tillman. He missed the last five games with a knee injury against UNR. Since Tillman was injured, the Rebels are 5-0.

Hamilton earns first-team honors

The Mountain West Conference announced its postseason honors for the 2019-2020 season.

Hamilton was named all-conference first team. He has been on a tear in conference, averaging 20.9 points per game.

In nine of the 18 conference games, Hamilton scored more than 20 points. Including a career-high 35 points against New Mexico.

Earning a spot on the third-team all-conference team is Amauri Hardy. He averaged 14.2 points per game in conference.

UNLV battles Boise State in the second quarterfinal of the Mountain West Tournament on Thursday at 2 p.m. PT.