When Marvin Menzies became UNLV’s basketball coach in 2016, only three scholarship players decided to stick around.
The Rebels went 13-21 that season with a roster put together with little more than duct tape after Menzies was hired late in the recruiting process.
New coach T.J. Otzelberger faced some turnover when he took over the Rebels this year, but not nearly to the extent that Menzies experienced. Seven letter-winners return from last season, including two starters — junior 6-foot-2-inch guard Amauri Hardy and junior 6-11 forward Mbacke Diong.
“These two guys have demonstrated their ability to be effective players in the Mountain West conference, to be leaders in this program and be guys that can produce night in and night out,” Otzelberger said. “So we’ve put a lot of stock in their success. We have a belief and confidence in what they can do.”
Otzelberger and those players represented UNLV at Mountain West media day Tuesday at Green Valley Ranch Resort. The media picked the Rebels to finish seventh in the 11-team conference. UNLV went 17-14 last season, including 11-7 in the conference, which tied for fourth.
Having Diong and Hardy back is crucial for Otzelberger as he tries to piece together his plan for this season, which begins Nov. 5 against Purdue-Fort Wayne at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Hardy started 19 games and played in 31 last season, seeing time mostly as a shooting guard, but also playing a fair amount of point. He averaged 13.1 points and 3.5 assists.
“Amauri’s proven as a guard,” Otzelberger said. “He’s an elite player in terms of getting to the rim and finishing. He’s knocked down a high rate of his catch-and-shoot 3-point shots.”
Diong started 22 games and played in 27, averaging 6.9 points and 6.8 rebounds. He also made 59.1 percent of his shots and had 1.5 blocked shots per game.
“Mbacke … defensively (is) the best player, in my opinion, in the conference,” Otzelberger said. “His length, athleticism, instincts, how hard he plays is truly elite. On the offensive end, he continues to expand his game every day because of his hard work.”
Hardy said Tuesday he wanted to be back with his teammates and play for a coach who took South Dakota State to the NCAA Tournament two of the past three seasons.
“I want to be able to play in March Madness, so I said, ‘Why not?’” Hardy said. “I’ve been here for three years, so this is kind of my second home. My family’s out here, so it was a pretty easy decision for me.”
Diong took a little longer to decide, but he took his name out of the portal in early to mid-May.
“We wanted to finish what we started,” Diong said.