It’s been a long while since UNLV’s basketball team entered a season with as much anticipation as it does as it heads into tonight’s regular season opener against Purdue-Fort Wayne. Fans will get their first real look at the Runnin’ Rebels under their new head coach, T.J. Otzelberger.
The former South Dakota State coach was hired this past spring after the university decided to move on from former head coach Marvin Menzies. Otzelberger joins the Runnin’ Rebels family after posting an impressive 70-33 record at the helm of SDSU, leading the Jackrabbits to the NCAA tournament twice.
Now, as the Rebels open the season tonight in what is considered a question mark of a season, there is a great deal of optimism Coach Otz will return to the program to its former glory.
“Wherever we’re at today, we want to be better next week and the following and so on so that we’re playing our best basketball come late February and into March,” Otzelberger told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “I think that’s what every program wants to do. I think in order for us to do that, we’ve got to work extremely hard. We’ve got to put in the hours, we’ve got to be in great shape, and we’ve got to stay mentally and physically healthy for the long haul.”
The addition of Otzelberger is just one of many changes within the program from roster to playing style and philosophy. While many of Menzies’s players chose to stick around, Otzelberger’s staff — which includes fan favorite and former Rebel Kevin Kruger — has added a few complimentary pieces to help with the transition into his system.
UNLV returns two starters from last year’s team, which went 17-14 and tied for fourth in the Mountain West at 11-7, along with five other Runnin’ Rebel letter-winners. Returners include junior point guard Amauri Hardy (13.1 PPG/3.5 APG), big man Cheikh Mbacke Diong (6.9 PPG/6.8 RPG), senior Nick Blair (6.3 PPG/3.6 RPG) and sophomore Bryce Hamilton (4.3 PPG/1.6 RPG), who very well may be the Rebels’ 2019-20 breakout player of the year.
The program has welcomed five new student-athletes eligible to compete this season, along with two NCAA Division I transfers who are redshirting. One vital addition is Utah transfer Donnie Tillman, who is expected to bolster the Runnin’ Rebels (6-foot-7, 225 pounds). Tillman was granted immediately hardship eligibility after earning the Pac-12 Conference’s Sixth Man of the Year Award as a sophomore last season. He ranked third on the team in scoring with 10.5 points per game and was second on the team with 163 rebounds (5.3 RPG).
Junior transfer guard Jonah Antonio, who led the Runnin’ Rebels with 23 points on 7-of-11 from 3-point range in UNLV’s exhibition game with West Coast Baptist last week. Antonio is a former Otzelberger recruit who transferred in from South Plains College in Levelland, Texas. He averaged 11.6 points per game while making 40.9 percent of his 3-point shots. He’ll also be joined by Texas transfer Elijah Isa Mitrou-Long and Arizona State big man Vitaliy Shibel.
Fans seem excited about getting to know Otzelberger, who hails from Wisconsin and has coached in multiple quality programs over the course of his career.
A three-year starter for University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Otzelberger began his coaching career at Burlington Catholic Central High School in Burlington, Wis., before serving as an assistant coach for Chipola College in Florida. Otzelberger joined the Iowa State coaching staff in 2006, where he would remain for eight seasons. As Fred Hoiberg’s associate head coach, he helped lead the Cyclones to its first NCAA tournament in 2012 and had a reputation as one of the top recruiters in the nation.
In 2013, Otzelberger joined the Washinton Huskies but left after just two years before returning to Iowa State. Otzelberger was hired by South Dakota State in April of 2016, where he has been ever since.
While expectations might need to be tempered, fans aren’t holding back on their expectations.
1) 18-22 wins
2) Top-5 finish in the conference
3) Win a conference tournament game or two
4) Win a few of the big non conference games
5) Be competitive in the MW and win on the road
6) Develop an identity on offense and defense
— Alex Wright (@AlexWright1028) November 5, 2019
Top five finish in Mountain west. Make a run in the conference tournament. Looks like we got some talent, just not sure how deep we are #unlvmbb
— Branden Ledesma (@BrownHulk59) November 5, 2019
Success for #UNLVmbb is making the post season. That means NIT at an absolute minimum.
— 🅹🅰🆂🅾🅽 🆅🅸🅶🅸🅻 (@jasonvigil88) November 5, 2019
Some fans believe the biggest success this season would be to bring back the program enthusiasm to the fan base, especially when it comes to increased attendance.
These answers deny reality – realistic expectations before Rice was hired. 9 years later, this program is rock bottom. Success means simply anything that generates ANY excitement or enthusiasm for #unlvmbb. Otz is starting at zero. Moving the needle to 1 would be giant success.
— New York Rebel (@NYRebelLV) November 5, 2019
17 wins-ish, headsy basketball (if physically outmatched) and, honestly, better attendance.
If more fans return, win or lose, Coach Otz has done his job in Year One. He's built local hope through performance.
I've also included this old Applebee's ad pic, just in case, pic.twitter.com/3JPILP9vHR
— Kevin Fiddler (@KFidds) November 5, 2019
The Runnin’ Rebels open with Purdue-Fort Wayne, which finished last season 18-15 overall last year and tied for third in the Summit League at 9-7.
Tonight’s game will be video streamed live on UNLVRebels.com with Tony Cordasco and Donovan Stewart calling the action. Jon Sandler, former Runnin’ Rebel Curtis Terry and Steve Cofield (sidelines) will handle the UNLV radio call, which may be heard live on ESPN Radio 1100 in Las Vegas and online via the UNLVGameday App and TuneIn.