You can feel the enthusiasm building in small pockets within the UNLV basketball fan base. The Thomas & Mack Center echoes with the cautiously optimistic whispers in the front sections of season ticket holders while watchful observations rain down from from the nose bleeds. There’s been an uptick in energy at the core of the program, as evidenced by the team’s play Tuesday night in its season opening 86-71 win over Purdue-Ft. Wayne.
That energy is going to be put to the test Saturday afternoon when perennial tournament team Kansas State rolls into town for the weekend matinee. Whatever happens Saturday has no bearing on the seemingly positive energy permeating the team’s clubhouse. Under first-year Coach T.J. Otzelberger, there has been nothing but positive energy emanating since he took the job.
It’s just one game, but watching the effort level and seeing the Rebels play in the high-octane Oztelberger offense, it’s hard not to feel this early part of the “Otz Era” is off to a solid start. It was most obvious in the effort and enthusiasm from the returning players, who seemed to sleepwalk through former coach Marvin Menzies’s final season this past year.
The Runnin’ Rebels were led by junior forward Mbacke Diong’s double-double of 17 points and 17 rebounds, which are both career highs. Junior guard Jonah Antonio also scored 17 points as he shot 5-of-9 from 3-point range. Junior forward Donnie Tillman (16), junior guard Amauri Hardy (15) and senior guard Elijah Mitrou-Long (11) also scored in double digits.
Otzelberger was happy with the team’s effort in its debut.
“I was pleased with how our guys came out prepared for this game. We established in that first half who we can be defensively when we pressure the basketball, when we really guard and contest the 3-point line, and we do a great job on the glass. We had a couple of spectacular performances and was just an overall good team win.”
Fans also seemed pleased with the team’s initial effort, as they took to social media to give their opinions on the debut.
Now THAT is a style and brand of UNLV basketball I can watch. Thank you Coach TJO! #UNLV
— Vince Rampa (@Rampa19) November 6, 2019
Run Rebels! Win! @UNLVathletics @TheRunninRebels We ARE Daring.Diverse.Different. We UNDERSTAND Teamwork bc We ARE Stronger Together! There is no “I” in TEAM! @UNLV_President @NBA @unlv @ThomasAndMack @BoilerBall https://t.co/EN8baUDFoO
— Francine Lipman (@Narfnampil) November 6, 2019
Even the players were feeling confident…even if a little too confident.
Jonah Antonio after all five UNLV starters scored in double figures:
“I’m putting our starting five against any starting five in the country.”
— Tyler Bischoff (@Bischoff_Tyler) November 6, 2019
All jokes aside, the vitality is truly growing as the high-energy system of Otzelberger continues to take hold. The man seems tireless and comes across as a can of Four Loko downed with a Red Bull chaser. Redshirt transfer, former (now current) Oztelverger player, and one of the best shooters in the nation, David Jenkins, is even showing his enthusiasm as well as a faith in a coach he knows better than anyone here in Vegas.
— David Jenkins Jr (@WorldStarDave) November 7, 2019
First Win. First Celly. pic.twitter.com/M0fGnnBKVd
— UNLV Men's Basketball (@TheRunninRebels) November 7, 2019
With the 1 p.m Saturday start against Kansas State, the Rebels hope to bring in a larger crowd than the “paid attendance” of 7,728 — although it felt like no more than 3,000. The game’s timing might be simply too early for the fan base to truly buy in but the season opener did all it could to at least send an invite to the skeptical fans watchfully waiting as the Rebels attempt to earn back their trust.