When signing a graduate transfer, the understanding between school and player is that person will be a starter.
That certainly was the case with Elijah Mitrou-Long, who was UNLV’s starting point guard for the first nine games this season. But then he broke his left thumb, relegating Mitrou-Long to nearly two months of work as a cheerleader in sweatpants.
Mitrou-Long became his replacement’s biggest supporter and has continued to back Marvin Coleman even after his return from the injury. Rather than fight for his job back, Mitrou-Long said he is trying to find his role on the team.
“Marvin’s taken that position,” Mitrou-Long said. “If there’s anybody on the team that I’m cool with, it’s Marvin. When I was at the point guard position in the starting lineup, he was the first guy to get up when I hit 3s, the first guy to chant my name, the first guy to be in the gym supporting me.”
The Rebels (11-11, 6-3 Mountain West), who visit Colorado State (15-8, 6-4) at 1 p.m. Saturday, still need Mitrou-Long, a 6-foot-1-inch transfer from Texas.
His first game back was an indication of how important he remains to UNLV. Mitrou-Long played 19 minutes as a reserve that included critical time late in Sunday’s 71-67 loss to No. 4 San Diego State. He had eight points, three assists and three rebounds and often shared the court with Coleman as the Rebels played a four-guard lineup.
Coach T.J. Otzelberger said that four-guard look will continue to be used “at times.”
“It still needs to be for our group that when we do that, we don’t lose a whole lot on the glass because rebounding has been our bread and butter,” Otzelberger said. “So as long as we can maintain our effectiveness on the boards, it’s something we will continue to do.”
Whether the Rebels would ever open with a four-guard lineup is another question. Otzelberger said two weeks ago that Coleman would be the starting point guard even when Mitrou-Long returned.
Coleman does a little bit of everything, averaging 6.7 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists. His triple-double Jan. 18 against New Mexico was UNLV’s first in more than 20 years, and the Rebels jumped out to a 6-1 start in Mountain West play with him running the offense.
Mitrou-Long was one of Coleman’s biggest supporters, giving advice even right after the injury. He also passed along observations to Coleman during timeouts of games or when they were on the bench together.
“My success came a lot from Eli,’” Coleman said. “I thank him every single day. It wasn’t what I expected.”
Otzelberger said it showed Mitrou-Long’s character that he didn’t cause locker-room disruptions by demanding he get his job back.
“We were pretty straight forward that Marvin’s earned that position and it’s going to be his spot, but there are other areas where you can help our ballclub,” Otzelberger said. “Eli and Marvin have a really strong relationship. Eli’s been a good mentor to Marvin through this stretch. As Eli is back in there, you’re seeing that chemistry come together as a result.”
Who: UNLV vs. Colorado State
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Moby Arena, Fort Collins, Colo.
TV/Radio: ESPN3 (online stream); KWWN (1100 AM, 100.9 FM)
Line: Colorado State -6½; total 146
UNLV (11-11, 6-3 Mountain West)
Coach: T.J. Otzelberger (11-11, first season)
Colorado State (15-8, 6-4 MW)
Coach: Niko Medved (27-28, second season)