Almost lost in the background but hanging over UNLV’s players like a rain-filled cloud is the simple math that new coach T.J. Otzelberger has signed more players for next season than he has available scholarships.
Three scholarship seniors make up the roster, and six players are signed in the current recruiting class, so the Rebels are not only are playing for spots in the rotation this season, they’re auditioning for next year’s roster.
Otzelberger said the players are given all the resources they need to excel and have no reason not to give it their all.
“So I think what will play itself out over the next few months is that the guys that have the most gratitude and appreciation for this program will demonstrate that through their actions and how hard they play,” he said. “And guys that don’t value this opportunity may find it to be better for them to look elsewhere because maybe they didn’t sign up for this standard and they didn’t sign up for this degree of accountability and it doesn’t fit them.
“Maybe there’s a place they could be where it would fit them better.”
This has been far from the type of start Rebels fans hoped for under Otzelberger. UNLV is 5-8 entering Saturday’s noon game against Eastern Michigan (9-2) at the Thomas & Mack Center, and it’s a Rebels roster that doesn’t fit Otzelberger’s style of pushing pace and shooting 3-pointers.
The Rebels have been mostly competitive, losing games in overtime to Kansas State, California and Cincinnati, but they also have had dispiriting losses to Brigham Young and Pacific that caused Otzelberger to question the team’s effort.
“Our program’s still in transition, so there’s probably not going to realistically be a time this season where everything is smooth and sorts itself out perfectly,” Otzelberger said. “There are going to be ebbs and flows. I think our guys understand what the standard is.”
Meeting that standard, he said, means approaching practices with the same intensity as with games and being on time for meetings and other team functions. Those who fall short don’t start, which has resulted in Donnie Tillman missing three expected starts and Jonah Antonio, Bryce Hamilton and Amauri Hardy one each.
All four didn’t start the most recent game, Dec. 21 against Robert Morris, though now with Antonio back healthy — he missed six games earlier with an injured left thumb — Hamilton is a backup anyway.
Otzelberger sent out a lineup that included Nick Blair, Marvin Coleman and Jay Green — who had a combined five career starts — and walkon Trey Hurlburt was the first reserve off the bench. The Rebels responded with one of their more inspired efforts in beating Robert Morris 81-69.
“I wasn’t trying to make an example out of anybody or prove a point,” Otzelberger said. “I think how life works is if you have an opportunity and you’re not humble and appreciative enough of that opportunity and you take some risks that could jeopardize that, somebody else might be really excited about that same opportunity and then step up and embrace it. I think that’s what we saw from our guys.”
More Rebels: Follow at reviewjournal.com/Rebels
Who: UNLV vs. Eastern Michigan
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Thomas & Mack Center
TV/Radio: UNLVRebels.com (stream); KWWN (1100 AM, 100.9 FM)
Eastern Michigan (9-2)
Coach: Rob Murphy (153-129, ninth season)
Coach: T.J. Otzelberger (5-8, first season)