LAS VEGAS — Saturday afternoon, UNLV Rebels fans witnessed their football team stage a late comeback in the final game at Sam Boyd stadium, and for a moment it looked their basketball team was going to pull off something equally impressive that night. UNLV turned a double-digit deficit into a one-possession game, but the Rebels went cold down the stretch that allowed SMU to run out of Thomas & Mack Arena with a 72-68 victory.
TCU transfer Kendric Davis, who led all scorers with 21 points, ignited the Mustangs. Davis received his eligibility waiver from the NCAA less than 24 hours before the game and was efficient from the floor, giving UNLV’s defense trouble.
Throughout the contest, UNLV struggling finding good shots and could not overcome a bad shooting night, connecting on just 35.9 percent of attempts. UNLV struggled with SMU’s zone defense. The Mustangs forced UNLV to shoot over the top and they switched every ball screen. The Rebels attempted a season-high 33 three-point attempts and shot 36 percent from distance. When Bryce Hamilton and Amauri Hardy go cold from deep, things can go bleak for the Rebels quickly.
UNLV big man Cheikh Mbacke Diong had success inside, scoring 10 points on 3-5 shooting. Moving forward, the Rebels need to do a better job of getting their big man more opportunities.
In the postgame press conference, Hardy revealed they wanted to get the ball to Diong in the original game-plan. However, the Rebels weren’t able to get the ball in the paint as much as they wanted to.
“We tried to get the ball in the paint and get Diong touches to get him to the free throw line, but they made it challenging for us to do that,” Hardy said. “They were switching all of our ball screens. We tried but we didn’t do a good enough doing that.”
UNLV dropped its second consecutive home game and fell to 2-5 on the young season — the program’s worst start since 2006. Most Rebels fans had low expectations, knowing it would be a rebuilding year and they were picked seventh in Mountain West Conference preseason poll. However, few fans expected a rough start that has featured consistent offensive struggles given T.J. Otzelberger’s success at South Dakota State.
The record doesn’t show the whole story. The Rebels have been competitive in six of their seven contests, but the Rebels have struggled executing in the game’s final minutes against good competition. UNLV ran into buzzsaws against UCLA and had to play a newly stocked SMU team on Saturday.
In the postgame, Otzelberger was candid about not being satisfied with moral victories.
“We’re done with moral victories,” Otzelberger said. “Our guys played hard. We didn’t play winning basketball when it came time to win. That’s on me. We’re going to get it right. I don’t care if I don’t sleep in the process. That’s not good enough. It’s going to get better here, fast.”
So at 2-5, is it time to hit the panic button or is it still too premature? UNLV fans need to have faith in Otzelberger. Otzelberger hates losing more than anyone and won 70 games at South Dakota State, making two NCAA Tournament appearances in his three-year tenure as a Jackrabbit.
UNLV fans are upset with the lethargic results on offense. The Runnin’ Rebels lost a majority of their scoring from last year, and they are still adjusting to the style of a new offense. Otzelberger has been forced to adjust to his new personnel that is missing key pieces.
In his last two years at South Dakota State, Otzelberger had the Jackrabbits playing fast and running. With David Jenkins running the point, Otzelberger’s Jackrabbits finished in the top 50 in pace, top 50 in adjusted efficiency, and the top 10 in scoring. Once Jenkins becomes eligible for the Rebels, don’t be surprised if they start playing a different style. In his first seven games at UNLV, they are one of the slowest teams in basketball ranking 322nd in overall pace. Right now, UNLV lacks a lead point guard that can command the offense.
College basketball is better when the Runnin’ Rebels are good. With new entertaining sports options coming to Vegas, the passion and interest for UNLV basketball is the beginning to fade away. Otzelberger has a strong 2020 class coming in, and this young team is going to get better. UNLV needs to embrace the bumps and bruises of Otzelberger’s first season, as it will help this team grow in the long run. Just be patient.