Amauri Hardy always seemed the one.
UNLV had fired Marvin Menzies as basketball coach in March, and players sprinted to the NCAA transfer portal before several scattered across the college landscape to other programs.
Hardy also entered his name, with the guard’s decision proving most pivotal for the Rebels.
Then the school hired T.J. Otzelberger as coach and a conversation commenced.
“I wanted him to know there was an opportunity to have the ball in his hands and make plays off the dribble as well as knocking down shots,” Otzelberger said. “We needed leadership. There was an opportunity for him given the makeup of our roster.”
Hardy ultimately returned, and on Saturday he had his best game in a while. Marvin Coleman banked in the winning shot with 0.8 seconds remaining to beat Fresno State 68-67 at the Thomas & Mack Center, but Hardy did his part, too.
A pretty obvious evaluation of a UNLV team that is 12-13 overall and 7-5 in the Mountain West: Otzelberger is a very good coach who is using this first season to instill a culture of expectations as much as he is counting victories.
It’s the smart move and will make UNLV far better down the road.
He also doesn’t put an inch of stock in recruiting stars when assessing ability, which if that fact doesn’t alone make him my favorite coach nationally, he’s in the neighborhood.
But it’s also going to take a certain kid to buy in and succeed under him here, a challenge that has and will prove far tougher for some than others.
The junior Hardy is one of the more interesting case studies for this.
He was solid Saturday, scoring a team-high 18 points while making 4 of 8 on 3s.
In his previous three games, all losses amid a four-game slide that was snapped Saturday, Hardy shot 6 of 24 while totaling 16 points.
“Just have to stay the course,” he said. “There are always going to be highs and lows in this game, but you have to remain levelheaded and rely on all the work you put it.
“You either fold up and quit and let the adversity overpower you or stay true to yourself and build character from it. It’s basketball. It’s just a game. Lot tougher things to deal with in real life.”
He’s the older brother of Coronado prep star Jaden Hardy, a junior so skilled that if you had handed him a jersey Saturday, he would have been the best player on the floor.
In some respects, it wouldn’t have been close.
The pressure of trying to match such a talented sibling can’t be easy, but Amauri Hardy at his best should be considered a very good Mountain West guard.
When he shoots as he did against the Bulldogs and gets downhill enough to create for others or finish a play at the rim, as he did with 40 seconds left to get UNLV within 67-66, he plays an important role.
He isn’t great defensively, but you can barely count on one hand the number of Rebels who are right now.
That, too, will undoubtedly improve in time. It must if UNLV is to take a significant step forward in coming seasons.
Made big plays
“(Hardy) banged down some big shots for us,” Otzelberger said. “I liked his energy, especially as the game went on. The layup late was a really big play. I thought he really gave us a good burst.”
It’s no use trying to figure out the future for this particular roster, Otzelberger having secured a recruiting class whose numbers reach beyond those available scholarships next season.
Turnover is coming, and who goes and stays is a total mystery to anyone outside the program, along with perhaps most in it.
If there are those who are completely safe, I would assume it’s merely a few.
Hardy has been like most Rebels, good some nights and not others.
But he was the former Saturday.
“I never look too far ahead, because when you do that, you start thinking about the future and things you can’t control,” Hardy said. “You start thinking about things you shouldn’t. Just stay in the moment.
“(Menzies) leaving was like losing a boss at your job. You get another boss and adjust. That’s life.”
Contact columnist Ed Graney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.