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Analytics driving force for new UNLV coach T.J. Otzelberger

Updated October 11, 2019 - 5:29 am

When Fred Hoiberg became Iowa State’s basketball coach in 2010, he retained T.J. Otzelberger from the previous staff and put him in charge of scouting opponents.

The problem for the Cyclones was they had a 6-foot-5-inch power forward and a 6-6 center. Good luck matching up in the Big 12 Conference with that lack of size.

So Otzelberger looked for creative ways to attack opponents’ weaknesses, helping install a system that would prioritize shooting 3-pointers and layups while limiting opposing 3-point attempts.

“I think that’s the first time I kind of fell in love with the numbers,” he said. “I felt like they were very important to teams being successful.”

Now Otzelberger, who is entering his first season as UNLV’s coach, is trying to convey the importance of analytics to his players.

Understanding the importance of a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer over a pull-up 3.

Ditching the midrange shot.

Deciding which shots to close out on defensively while giving a little space to others.

“He’s very detailed, which is good,” guard Elijah Mitrou-Long said of Otzelberger. “You don’t want a coach to not be detailed because little things can win a game and little things can lose a game.”

Returning guard Bryce Hamilton is learning the importance of how analytics applies under Otzelberger. Hamilton is a slasher who has flashed the ability to make 3-pointers.

The plan is for his midrange jumper to go the way of flip phones.

“I feel like I’m a pretty good midrange shooter, but (Otzelberger) always comes at me with the stats and stuff,” Hamilton said.

Want to get Otzelberger fired up?

Just bring up analytics as a topic and step back as statistics roll of his tongue like a waterfall. But it’s not all about the numbers. It’s about teaching the proper techniques that support those numbers.

On defense, that means not only forcing opponents off the 3-point line, but keeping them out of the lane as well.

“We want to give up contested, tough 2s,” Otzelberger said. “Whether it’s floaters, step-backs, turnarounds, pull-up jump shots, the numbers say when you get that shot it’s worth only two points, and in college basketball guys make that shot in the low 30s. So you’re looking at .66 points per possession in most cases. The other thing is it’s an unassisted field goal. Your defense isn’t in rotation, so you have great rebounding position oftentimes.”

That’s not to say Otzelberger wants his players to stand flatfooted while opponents take wide-open midrange jumpers. He wants to defend those shots, but the Rebels won’t be expected to close out on them as intensely as they would a 3-point attempt or as fiercely as when defending a layup.

As for when the Rebels are on offense, there are numbers that dictate that strategy as well.

For example, Otzelberger said Mitrou-Long and Amauri Hardy make more than 40 percent of their 3-pointers off catch-and-shoot passes and in the 20s off the dribble. The national average off the dribble is around 30 percent, he said, and likely to decrease with the 3-point line moving back to 22 feet, 1¾ inches, which Otzelberger said would put points per possession at about .81. He said the goal is to hold opponents below .90.

“Steph Curry’s probably the best shooter in the NBA,” Otzelberger said. “As good of a shooter as he is, his numbers off the catch are in the mid to upper 40s. His numbers off the dribble are in the mid 30s. If it’s not a great shot for Steph Curry, I don’t know why it would be a great shot for anybody in college basketball.”

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

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @markanderson65 on Twitter.

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