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T.J. Otzelberger’s trip to UNLV began as Milwaukee teen — VIDEO

Updated April 13, 2019 - 6:28 pm

T.J. Otzelberger was 15 when he realized his passion for basketball, but the problem was telling his dad, Tom, a former baseball player at Wisconsin-Milwaukee who hoped his son would follow him into the sport.

An even bigger problem for Otzelberger: Milwaukee had just two AAU teams, and he didn’t make either one.

“I couldn’t go home to my dad and tell him I had failed in that endeavor,” Otzelberger said.

So he created his own AAU team, leaving his south Milwaukee neighborhood to find a diverse group of players from all over the city, a head coach to lead them, a convent with an old gym

for practice and a sporting goods store to provide uniforms at a discount. Otzelberger also raised funds by selling ads for a program.

As a high school sophomore and junior, Otzelberger scouted prep games looking for players, and by his senior year, the team won the state championship and finished fifth nationally.

“I think all those things that we’re doing on a daily basis here, I was fortunate to have some on-the-job training at 15,” said Otzelberger, who was hired as UNLV’s basketball coach March 27 after going 70-33 in three seasons at South Dakota State.

Early seeds at Whitewater

Wisconsin-Whitewater has won two Division III national championships this decade, and it was a lower-level power when Otzelberger was on the roster from 1998 to 2001. Coach Dave Vander Meulen made 12 NCAA Tournament appearances in 23 years and won national titles in 1984 and 1989.

Otzelberger was more of a role player, averaging 3.5 points as a junior before an injury shut down his senior season, but Vander Meulen looked at the athlete as an extension of himself.

“When I saw him practicing, I wasn’t sure what we could do, but then somehow he would always get the job done,” Vander Meulen said. “He could take on any criticism or take on any hard words. He wasn’t someone who I had to be careful with what I said to.

“He would listen to what the coach said, and some players don’t. He can communicate with all kinds of people. When you’re a coach, especially at the college level, you’ve got to be able to communicate with everybody.”

Otzelberger, though, wasn’t thinking about becoming a coach at the time. He thought he would go into commercial real estate. But then his former high school coach, Norb Wishowski, said he had an opening to lead a junior varsity team.

A career was born.

Getting a big break

Otzelberger received his first recruiting letter from Greg McDermott, then the coach at Wayne State, and later worked McDermott’s camps at Northern Iowa.

McDermott thought Otzelberger would make a great hire, and a spot came open in 2006 when McDermott took the job at Iowa State and hired him as an assistant.

“Not only was T.J. able to develop relationships with young people and their families, he also had a very good eye for talent,” McDermott said. “His evaluation skills were ahead of his time for such a young coach. He was 29 years old at the time.”

McDermott left in 2010 for Creighton, and a coaching change often results in a staff overhaul. But when Fred Hoiberg took over the Cyclones, he retained Otzelberger and promoted him to associate head coach.

Iowa State reached the top 25 two seasons later for the first time in seven years. Otzelberger’s recruiting helped put the Cyclones there.

His career was taking shape, and so, too, was his personal life.

Meeting his bride

Otzelberger was making recruiting calls in his office one night shortly after the 2010 season when he heard a ball bouncing on a nearby practice court. He thought one of his players might be shooting around, but instead it was Cyclones star Alison Lacey.

Lacey, an Australia native, was getting ready to leave for New York for the WNBA Draft, where she would be the 10th pick of the Seattle Storm. The two began talking, and with basketball being the obvious common denominator, hit it off.

“I tell her either one of two things happened,” said Otzelberger, smiling. “One, my game was really on point or, two, I was so irresistible she couldn’t get enough of me.”

Basketball took them on different paths geographically, with Lacey playing one season for the Storm’s 2010 championship team and coaching at a Iowa junior college for two years before moving to Seattle after Otzelberger became Washington’s associate head coach.

The two were married June 1, 2013, and now have three children.

“It’s a weird dynamic, because when it comes to his basketball teams, we don’t really talk a lot about it,” Lacey Otzelberger said. “I have so much respect for all coaches. It’s such a hard profession. Basketball games are always on in our house, and we love to talk about other teams and whatever’s on ESPN.

“He lives and breathes (his team) almost 24/7, so if the kids and I can be an escape for him where he’s not having to think about that for maybe an hour, I think that’s one of the most important things I can do for him.”

Moving on, going back

Otzelberger worked on Lorenzo Romar’s Huskies staff from 2013 to 2015, helping assemble a top-10 recruiting class in 2014. The Huskies were ranked as high as 11th the following season.

Otzelberger’s ability to identify talent went beyond the obvious four- and five-star recruits. Marquese Chriss was a little-known forward in Elk Grove, California, when Otzelberger spotted him.

“I had not heard of Marquese Chriss,” said Romar, now the coach at Pepperdine. “(Otzelberger) said, ‘You’ve got to go watch him. He just started playing basketball a couple of years ago, and he’s really young. He may not do a whole lot, but every now and then he’ll do something to really get your attention, but I think he’s got a chance to be really good.’ When I went to watch Marquese, that’s exactly what I saw.

“We were able to get on him early enough to where we were able to convince him our place was the best place for him. If we had waited longer, it would’ve been a lot more difficult, because every school in the country would’ve been recruiting him.”

Chriss averaged 13.7 points and 5.4 rebounds in the 2015-16 season at Washington, and he was taken eighth in 2016 by the NBA’s Phoenix Suns after a draft-day trade with the Sacramento Kings.

Otzelberger wasn’t there that season to watch Chriss at Washington, having returned to familiar surroundings at Iowa State. The Cyclones reached the Sweet 16, and soon he would get the chance to run his own program.

Becoming a head coach

South Dakota State called Otzelberger in 2016, a program that made the NCAA Tournament three of the previous five seasons and was bringing back a veteran team.

Much like now at UNLV, Otzelberger had to recruit those players to stay. By keeping the core intact, the Jackrabbits made two NCAA Tournament appearances in his first two seasons and a National Invitational Tournament.

“He instilled complete confidence in us and gave us the freedom to play to our strengths,” said Mike Daum, a three-time Summit League Player of the Year at South Dakota State. “He knows his team’s strengths, and he’s going to put you in position to make the shots that you’re able to take. He’s never going to turn down a shot.”

Otzelberger’s 3-point-based system at South Dakota State produced an offense that ranked among the top 10 nationally his final two seasons.

“Playing up-tempo and in transition is what makes sense to me,” Otzelberger said. “I think guys need freedom. They need empowerment. They need confidence. So that will always be a staple of how we play, but it still comes down to the players of putting them in the best spots to be as successful as they can.”

Will Otzelberger, 41, duplicate his success with the Rebels? He has plenty of work to do, but already has convinced several players to stay, including starting guard Amauri Hardy. Junior college guard Jonah Antonio has committed. The coaching staff is in place.

“As a coach, you want to be somewhere where you can be successful,” Otzelberger said. “You want to be somewhere where they’ve had success before. You want to be somewhere where people really care and are passionate. All those things are in alignment here.”

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

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