It seems like an eternity since the UNLV men’s basketball program has played a game. But it has only been 33 days.
The Runnin’ Rebels had the program put on pause following COVID-19 cases within the program, most notably head coach T.J. Otzelberger announced he had tested positive December 15.
But after having a total six games postponed due to COVID-19, UNLV will return to the floor to face Colorado State tonight for its first Mountain West game of the season.
UNLV returned to practice Monday, which was the first time the team has been able to practice since the program went on pause over three weeks ago following the announcement of Otzelberger’s positive test.
Home games between Eastern Washington (Dec. 9) and Pepperdine (Dec. 14) were postponed due to COVID issues within the UNLV program prior to the Runnin’ Rebels going on pause.
Subsequent Mountain West series between at Wyoming (Dec. 20 & 22) and against San Diego State (Jan. 2 & 4) were postponed as well.
The last time the Runnin’ Rebels were on the floor was on Dec. 5 when they defeated Kansas State in Manhattan (KS), 68-58, for its first win of the season.
Not only did UNLV get its first win against Kansas State, but David Jenkins had his coming out party after struggling in the first four games of the year. Jenkins scored 25 points, 17 in the second half, and knocked down seven three-pointers. Bryce Hamilton also continued his solid play to start the year with his 18 points and Caleb Grill added 12 points.
While pauses within college basketball programs have been the norm due to the COVID-19 pandemic, UNLV certainly did not want a pause to happen when it looked like the team was finally hitting its stride.
Due to the pandemic, UNLV did not the offseason it planned for, with regular summer practices, a scheduled summer trip to Canada to play a few games, and two exhibition games before the season started. And with eight new players to the program, UNLV needs all the time they can get to play together.
When they return to the floor, UNLV will not get a break as they travel in Fort Collins, Colorado (in the altitude), to face a 6-2 Rams team who sits in third place in the Mountain West Conference standings.
The Rams are coming off a series split against San Diego State that saw Colorado State complete the biggest comeback in conference history on Saturday, Jan. 2 after they come back from a 26-point first half deficit to win 70-67. The Aztecs came back to win the following Monday 78-65.
Colorado State has developed a solid one-two punch with David Roddy (averaging 15.9 PPG) and Isaiah Stevens (13.5) to lead the Rams.
UNLV will look to counter with the trio of Hamilton (20.8), Grill (13.6), and Jenkins (13.2). The three guards have proven to be the best options for UNLV when they need a basket or any momentum on offense, and the Runnin’ Rebels will need them to contribute as the team returns to action for the first time in over a month.
Another concern for UNLV will be how well conditioned the team will be after not playing in a game for over a month and playing in the altitude in Fort Collins will not help the Runnin’ Rebels either. In an interview with ESPN Las Vegas, Otzelberger noted that the team’s conditioning would be a concern since some players have not had any physical activity in 21 days since they were allowed to return to practice.
UNLV will likely come into this game a bit rusty because of the long layoff and Colorado State coming in as one of the hottest team in the conference. It will be interesting to see how Otzelberger uses his lineups and rotations in the game as UNLV eases back into play.
With so many games being postponed or canceled, and more could be based on the rate college basketball games have been delayed to start the year, Otzelberger and UNLV could likely be in a similar scenario they were in last year when they built momentum towards the end of the year.
With the NCAA Tournament as a long shot, it will be important to see how this team grows through the end of the year and how much they improve from the first game of the season.
Today’s game tips-off at 5:00 pm PT and will be seen on CBS Sports Network and can be heard on ESPN Las Vegas 1100 AM/100.9 FM. Saturday’s game takes place at 1:00 pm PT and will be on FS1.