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Play of backcourt key to UNLV’s success this season

UNLV’s big dreams for the basketball season start with its smaller players.

The Rebels’ hopes will largely hinge on the play of a talented group of guards that should form one of the Mountain West’s most well-rounded backcourts. If the group meshes, the players should be able to push the pace, pressure the ball and score in bunches as the team tries to build on coach T.J. Otzelberger’s first year with the program.

“If we were a puzzle, we’d fit together perfectly,” junior point guard Marvin Coleman said. “We’re gelling very well, if you ask me.”

Coleman returns to lead the group after a breakout sophomore season in which he averaged 8.6 points and 2.9 assists in Mountain West games. The former walk-on from Foothill High is the Rebels’ point guard on and off the court, trusted to lead his teammates by Otzelberger.

The pass-first playmaker will have plenty of places to go with the ball. That starts with junior guard Bryce Hamilton, one of UNLV’s other two returning starters and a first-team all-conference selection last season.

Hamilton is good enough to harbor pro aspirations after an outstanding sophomore campaign in which he averaged 20.9 points per conference game. And there’s still room to improve his jumper, rebounding and off-ball defense.

Hamilton and Coleman will be joined in the backcourt by South Dakota State transfer David Jenkins Jr. The junior, who sat out last season because of NCAA rules, should provide much-needed shooting and floor spacing.

Jenkins, who played for Otzelberger at South Dakota State, shot 45.3 percent on 3-pointers as a sophomore and can make shots off the catch and dribble. He was named the Mountain West preseason newcomer of the year Wednesday.

“David’s a very dynamic scorer,” Otzelberger said. “He shoots the ball with tremendous range and accuracy. He was one of the better shooters in the country a few years ago at South Dakota State.”

Coleman, Hamilton and Jenkins should give UNLV an impressive trio of starters, especially because each brings something different to the floor. But they’re not the only guards the Rebels are going to be counting on.

Nick Blake, the conference’s preseason freshman of the year, should have a “prominent role,” Otzelberger said. The 6-foot-6-inch Las Vegan is skilled enough to play on the ball and make 3s, but lengthy enough to rebound well and finish around the basket.

Sophomore Caleb Grill, a transfer from Iowa State, should provide backcourt depth. He averaged just 13.7 minutes per game for the Cyclones last season, but Otzelberger thinks his toughness and shooting will help out.

A key question will be how much time the guards spend on the floor together. The team used a lot of four-guard lineups late last season, and Otzelberger said he expects to play a “steady diet” of those looks again.

“We can run-and-gun, speed teams up,” Coleman said. “We’ve got a lot of solid guards, so a four-guard lineup isn’t something that we would shy away from. It’s something that we would embrace.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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