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UNLV’s T.J. Otzelberger uses caravan to connect with community

Updated May 31, 2019 - 6:58 pm

I was disappointed the other day when, pulling in for a car wash, it wasn’t T.J. Otzelberger inquiring what sort of air freshener was most preferred.

Man, what a slacker.

There is actually one place in the community he hasn’t visited since being named UNLV’s basketball coach.

It would be difficult to find a second.

In the world of quantifiable results, any return on investment from Otzelberger’s caravan rolling through the Las Vegas Valley these past several weeks won’t truly be known until things tip off at the Thomas & Mack Center.

And yet should a new season arrive and thousands upon thousands of red seats remain empty, it won’t be the result of a new coach not doing his best to create interest. He has. Tenfold.

“It has been awesome,” Otzelberger said of the caravan experience. “Even before I signed on (as coach), it was something that was important to me, to connect with the community.

“For us to build the brand and create energy is important. For me to get out there and show them I’m supportive of other endeavors, hopefully that will get people to come out and support us.”

He spoke Sunday at halftime of the Aces’ season opener at Mandalay Bay Events Center, where an announced gathering of 7,249 made for a bigger and far more electric atmosphere than most UNLV games the past few seasons.

Such is the gauge from which Otzelberger’s program will begin, the Rebels still very much a prove-it-before-anyone-believes-it product throughout town.

Otzelberger isn’t one to make grand predictions about the coming season, perhaps a good thing given where UNLV probably will be picked to finish in the Mountain West. Should the Rebels hold on to their one remaining scholarship — we hardly knew thee, Djordjije Sljivancanin, like at all — they would have 10 eligible players and two transfers sitting out.

In a league in which Utah State unquestionably should be a unanimous choice to finish first and the likes of San Diego State, New Mexico, UNR and even Air Force will offer rosters capable of contending most nights, the Rebels will begin more a puzzle than certainty in any preseason forecast.

“I’ve never been a big believer in putting goals on any given year,” Otzelberger said. “I’m more of a daily habits guy. If you do your daily work — we’re going to get up early and we’re going to grind all day — then the results take care of themselves.

“It’s easy for a team to start a year and say they want to win the conference and go to the NCAA Tournament. To me, hard work is what you do every day to achieve that. If you focus on work day after day, you tend to be in those positions far more than teams that set lofty goals.”

I like it. A lot. I have no idea of the results his first season or those beyond will produce, but love the message — we meet at this time for breakfast, we lift at this time, we’re on the court at this time, it’s not acceptable to be late, and anyone who doesn’t buy in 100 percent can find the door — he delivered upon taking the job.

Some stayed. Some left.

But a clear expectation was set.

All over town

Culture comes before winning, because if you can’t establish the former fast, the latter is really difficult to create on a consistent basis.

Otzelberger is trying, with his players and by spreading such thoughts all over Las Vegas.

Police. Fire. Local businesses. Schools. Various mixers. UFC. YMCAs. Rotary Club.

Corporate speakers on a rubber chicken circuit don’t hit as many spots as he has.

And then there is a time like Thursday, when Otzelberger ran a basketball clinic for kids from the Nevada Youth Network, which fosters the growth and independence of young people in communities of color.

And then you see pictures of Otzelberger with those children — him being genuine, playful, engaged — and like him even more.

“It’s my responsibility to unlock their unlimited potential,” Otzelberger said at the event. “To inspire, to empower, to pour my heart and soul into young people to make their dreams come true.”

He has to, in time, win. There’s no compromise on that.

But for now, a coach whose teams take a whole bunch of 3 pointers hasn’t missed one since arriving.

More Rebels: Follow at reviewjournal.com/Rebels and @RJ_Sports on Twitter.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com 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.

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