Rough 4-8 Start For Runnin’ Rebels Put Coach Otzelberger To The Test


When first-year UNLV basketball coach T.J. Otzelberger took the helm for the Runnin’ Rebels, optimism reigned supreme. The energetic coach, who replaced a sleepy predecessor, made the rounds in his caravan, interacted with fans, sold the program evolution and seemingly built up some goodwill within the community. Unfortunately for Otzelberger, the Rebels have started the season 4-8, fans are starting to grumble and   — in this lost season — even his team discipline is being tested.

After last night’s 74-66 home loss to Pacific, the Rebels have now dropped three of their last four contests and five of their last seven. While injuries to senior transfer guard Elijah Mitrou-Long and junior transfer gunner Jonah Antonio have thinned an already slim roster, the goodwill from fans is all but gone now that the Rebels are looking at no better than a 12- to 14-win season, at best.

“Our effort and energy was unacceptable,” Otzelberger said after the Pacific loss. “In practice tomorrow, we are going to spend a lot of time taking charges, diving for loose balls, blocking out and guarding the dribble. If you don’t do those things in basketball you are not going to be successful.

“Their team came onto our court, played harder, tougher, more physical and was more aggressive. That’s not what we are about and not what we seek to do each day. We are going to make sure we keep doing those things every day until they become habits”

The Rebels looked flat, uninspired, lethargic and any superlative you can come up with. What was supposed to be an exciting offense has struggled to score consistently. The defense, especially in the second half, has been dismal. To make matters worse, junior transfer Donnie Tillman has been punished twice already in his first season for breaking team rules, the second also including second-year sophomore Bryce Hamilton, who was also punished before the Pacific game.

This is a tipping point for Otzelberger and his Rebels

While a rough season is to be somewhat expected, the one thing a coach can control is discipline. With Tillman already punished twice before New Year’s in just his first season, it is starting to become clear why Utah fans weren’t super sad to see him leave. For a guy looking for that NBA payday down the line, his lack of discipline is leaving little to be desired by professional scouts.

Hamilton is a bigger concern. Tillman was always a potential one-and-done player but the talented sophomore is expected to be a long-term guy for Otzelberger, and his high ceiling makes him a potential star. The problem is, Hamilton is barely 19 years old in his second season. He is a younger player than most sophomores and Tillman’s influence could do more damage than good.

If Tillman is leading Hamilton down the wrong road, look for Otzelberger — who clearly sent a message in his press conference — to handle it accordingly. One bad apple can spoil the bunch and Tillman’s issues are now becoming a much larger red flag than just oversleeping or showing up late to a team activity.

Here’s looking at you, Otz

The entire UNLV fan base is watching how Otzelberger handles the adversity. If the wheels keep coming off, his honeymoon period may end faster than a Jake Paul-Tana Mongeau YouTube marriage. The first-year coach will need to keep the Rebels fighting, although his recent comments show the high-energy coach is starting to hit his own breaking point.

The fact that he’s already publicly chiding his own players for effort in just his first season is a serious concern for many fans. Keeping the wheels on the bus for his first Mountain West Conference run is a must. If this keeps up, the hot seat generator might kick on a little early in his tenure as Rebels fans expected some struggles, but not of this magnitude.

Fans took to social media to voice their concerns. The responses varied but a majority of them were negative.

Attendance has even lagged beyond last year’s dismal showing. While the announced paid attendance for the Pacific game was 7,023, there couldn’t have more than 2,000 fans in attendance.

Las Vegas demands winners for their dollars. The Vegas Golden Knights are nearing first place in their division, the Las Vegas Raiders are coming to town and the Las Vegas Aviators triple-A baseball team broke all sorts of attendance records this past year. Hell, even the perennially losing UNLV football program recently hired one of the hottest coordinator names in college football to lead the much-beleaguered program.

The battle for local relevance is as dire as ever for UNLV Basketball.

Something has to change, or the program could fall into permanent irrelevance as Vegas continues its evolution into a professional sports city. The fans are watching. The recruits are watching. All eyes are on Otzelberger as he navigates what the biggest test, so far, of his head coaching career.

But there is a silver lining.

UNLV has one of the top recruiting classes in the conference for 2020-21 and help is on the way with standout transfer David Jenkins Jr., widely considered the top junior college transfer in the nation. While Otzelberger had no problem reaching the NCAA tournament and winning with someone else’s players his first season at South Dakota State (18-17), the shift to a bigger school with better opponents hasn’t been as kind.

A program rebuild, which began in the midst of a previous rebuild, is a tall task for any coach, let alone a coach with just three seasons of head coaching experience. Patience is key, as most rebuilds takes three or four years before they finally see results. Vegas fans aren’t that patient, though, so — if he intends on making this a successful stop in his coaching journey — Otzelberger is going to have to right this ship sooner than later.

Anything less could potentially be a recipe for disaster.