UNLV coach T.J. Otzelberger has relied on mostly seven players in this young season, and there are no indications that will change.
The question: Is the reliance on a small core to play big minutes sustainable?
“I’m going to go as long as I can,” guard Amauri Hardy said chuckling. “Our guys will go as long as they can. We’ve got to stay together. I think that’s all it is. … We’ve got a lot of games ahead of us, a lot of different opponents. We’ve just got to stay the course.”
Part of the reason for the short bench is the competition. UNLV has played three Power Five teams in a row, losing twice in overtime and 71-54 at UCLA on Friday, and it made sense for Otzelberger to rely mostly on his starters.
Monday’s 7 p.m. game at the Thomas & Mack Center against Abilene Christian (1-2), which comes off a 73-69 loss to Pepperdine, could be an opportunity for the Rebels to play more reserves for longer minutes. The Wildcats are ranked No. 292 by Kenpom; UNLV (1-3) is No. 166 and is a 10½-point favorite.
Three UNLV players average more than 30 minutes per game, with guards Hardy (38.3) and Elijah Mitrou-Long (36.3) putting in an especially heavy workload. Forward Mbacke Diong (32.3) is the other Rebel north of 30 minutes.
Forward Donnie Tillman (29.3) and guard Jonah Antonio (28.8) average nearly 30 minutes, and reserves Bryce Hamilton (19.8) and Nick Blair (19.3) play the most among the reserves. Forward Cheickna Dembele averages eight minutes as Diong’s replacement, making it technically an eight-man rotation.
By comparison, 10 players averaged in double figures for minutes played last season, and point guard Noah Robotham at 32.1 received the most time.
“I think with our group right now, that’s where we’re at,” Otzelberger said. “We’ll evaluate as we move forward what’s the best for us, but I think right now those are the guys that have earned those opportunities, and until we make any change, that’s where we’re going to be at.”
Otzelberger said going with a short bench is not new for him and the lineup is not immovable. He said injuries and other factors could force changes, and situations can change through the evolution of a season.
“Guys have opportunities in practice every day to step up,” Otzelberger said. “If we see some bright spots we feel can help us on game night, we’ll certainly utilize them.”
But for now, to borrow from what Hardy said, Otzelberger is likely to stay the course with his current rotation. Hardy played 42 minutes in the 60-56 overtime home loss to Kansas State on Nov. 9, and he was one of four players to log 40-plus minutes in the 79-75 OT loss at California on Tuesday.
Which leads back to the original question of whether these heavy minutes are sustainable over a long season.
Tillman said he wasn’t concerned, crediting strength coach Jason Kabo for improving the players’ conditioning.
“I’m in the best shape of my life,” Tillman said following the loss at UCLA. “I still feel good. I still feel like I can play another 40 minutes.”
Who: UNLV vs. Abilene Christian
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Where: Thomas & Mack Center
TV/Radio: UNLVRebels.com (online stream); KWWN (1100 AM, 100.9 FM)
Line: UNLV -10½; total 134
Abilene Christian (1-2)
Coach: Joe Golding (91-100, seventh season)
Coach: T.J. Otzelberger (1-3, first season)