First-year coach T.J. Otzelberger has been evaluating his UNLV basketball players for several months, but on Tuesday morning at Mendenhall Center, the scrutiny and intensity increase significantly.
Plenty of questions need to be answered before the Rebels open their season Nov. 5 against Purdue Fort Wayne at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Here are three:
1. How quickly will the team form its identity?
The Rebels haven’t had any defining traits since Lon Kruger emphasized fundamentals and playing stubborn defense when he coached UNLV from 2004 to 2011.
Otzelberger brings a well-defined identity from South Dakota State, where he went 70-33 over the previous three seasons and twice made the NCAA Tournament. He believes in spacing the floor and completely buys into the analytics that argue shooting effectively from the 3-point line is a must for success.
South Dakota State led the Summit League last season by making 40.8 percent of its 3-point attempts, and the Jackrabbits’ 327 made 3s ranked second.
This is a transition season for Otzelberger as he works in those recruited specifically for his system with the returning players. How quickly he is able to do that will determine how quickly he will be able to implement his system. That work begins in practice on Tuesday.
2. Will Donnie Tillman be eligible?
His transfer from Utah was a major get for Otzelberger. But players usually have to sit out a season after leaving another four-year school. The NCAA, however, has been much more lenient in recent years in granting waivers to play immediately. Tillman is hoping he’ll be a beneficiary of that policy.
A 6-foot-7-inch junior forward, Tillman was the Pac-12 Conference Sixth Man of the Year after averaging 10.5 points and 5.3 rebounds last season. He previously played at Findlay Prep.
If the NCAA clears Tillman to play this season, expectations suddenly increase for the Rebels, though they still won’t be considered Mountain West contenders.
As strange as it may sound, UNLV fans should hope the NCAA makes Tillman sit out this season. That’s because there’s a good chance Tillman will want to play just one season and then turn pro. And that one season should be next year when South Dakota State transfer David Jenkins Jr. is eligible and Otzelberger has closer to the type of team he needs to make a real run at the Mountain West title.
3. How will the rotation shake out?
If UNLV was to play today, Texas graduate transfer Elijah Mitrou-Long would be the point guard, and juniors Amauri Hardy and Jonah Antonio likely would fill out a three-player backcourt.
Up front, expect Tillman to play one forward spot if eligible, or otherwise the position likely will go to senior Nick Blair. Junior Mbacke Diong should take the five spot.
How deep the rotation goes is another question. That’s part of what the next month and a half will determine.
Otzelberger would love to go far into his bench to have fresh bodies to push the ball down the court, but he also needs to make sure players aren’t just taking up space.
Jonah Antonio, G, 6-5, Jr. — Junior college transfer made 40.9 percent of 3-pointers
Nick Blair, F, 6-5, Sr. — Received scholarship after averaging 6.3 points and 5.3 rebounds
Marvin Coleman, G, 6-2, So. — Received scholarship after appearing in 11 games
Cheickna Dembele, F, 6-11, Jr. — Hand injury limited him to nine games
Mbacke Diong, F, 6-11, Jr. — Averaged 6.9 points and 6.8 rebounds
Jay Green, G, 6-5, So. — Redshirted last season
Christopher “Taka” Hall, G, 6-4, Sr. — Walk-on from Johnson & Wales University
Bryce Hamilton, G, 6-4, So. — Averaged 4.3 points
Amauri Hardy, G, 6-2, Jr. — Top returning scorer (13.1-point average)
Trey Hurlburt, G, 5-11, So. — Walk-on from Cal State San Marcos
David Jenkins Jr., G, 6-2, Jr. — Sitting out after transferring from South Dakota State
Elijah Mitrou-Long, G, 6-1, Sr. — Texas graduate transfer expectED to start at point guard
Vitaliy Shibel, F, 6-9, Sr. — Arizona State transfer hoped to have two years of eligibility, but will play this season only
Donnie Tillman, F, 6-7, Jr. — Utah transfer has filed a request with the NCAA to play this season.
Moses Wood, F, 6-8, So. — Sitting out after transferring from Tulane