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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 15 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels

TJ Otzelberger is looking to take another step forward in Year 2 in Las Vegas.

NCAA Basketball: UNLV at San Diego State Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

2019-2020 Record: 17-15 (12-6 Mountain West)
Key Returning Players: Bryce Hamilton (G, Jr.), Cheikh Mbacke Diong (F, Sr.), Marvin Coleman (G, Jr.)
Key Losses: Amauri Hardy (Oregon), Elijah Mitrou-Long, Nick Blair, Donnie Tillman (New Mexico State)
Key Newcomers: David Jenkins Jr. (G, Jr., South Dakota State), Moses Wood (F, So., Tulane), Caleb Grill (G, So., Iowa State), Nick Blake, Jhaylon Martinez

At face value, a 17-15 record in TJ Otzelberger’s first season at UNLV isn’t anything to write home about. However, the Runnin’ Rebels showed signs of growth throughout the year that lends itself to an optimistic vibe heading into year two.

After a middling start to the season that stretched into the first month of conference play, UNLV won six of its last seven games down the stretch to ultimately finish in a tie for second in the Mountain West with a 12-6 record. The high point of the season came in a 66-63 win over an undefeated San Diego State team that had amassed 26 straight wins up to the that point.

With a slew of transfers in the mix to go along with talented returnees, Otz and Co. should have the pieces to take another step forward in the Mountain West.

Key Non-Conference Games

UNLV has not released its full non-conference schedule yet, but there are a few games that are already known.

The Runnin’ Rebels will participate in the Maui Invitational (in Asheville) and will face a North Carolina team that’s ranked No. 16 in the preseason AP Poll. A second-day matchup against either Alabama or Stanford awaits after that.

The only other game of note is a Dec. 5 trip to Kansas State in what should be a winnable game.

3 things to watch:

Is Bryce Hamilton ready to be a star?

For the first part of last season, Hamilton’s playing time and production were mired with inconsistency. However, by the end of January, the former top 100 recruit was finally starting to produce like a star. Beginning with a season-high 35 points against New Mexico, Hamilton scored at least 20 points in eight of UNLV’s final 13 games. For all of Mountain West play, he scored in double figures in each game and ultimately averaged 20.9 points in league play. He’ll be the top returning scorer in the league and a likely candidate for Player of the Year after finishing first-team All-Mountain West.

Now as a junior, he’s expected to be one of the best players in the league and the catalyst for what should be a potent UNLV offense. Hamilton is a true three-level scorer as his shot distribution is almost evenly divided among shots at the rim (34.7%), 2-point jumpers (38.9%) and 3-point jumpers (33.9%), per Hoop Math. Otzelberger will need more from him than just scoring, though, if UNLV hopes to compete with the league’s best. Hamilton used 30.7% of UNLV’s possessions while on the floor (42nd nationally), but only tallied 1.4 assists per game. A more rounded Hamilton will lead to a more rounded Runnin’ Rebels squad.

Will David Jenkins Jr. be the perfect running mate?

Despite playing alongside one of the best scorers in college basketball history in Mike Daum, David Jenkins Jr. was an ELITE scorer during his two seasons at South Dakota State. From the moment he set foot on campus, he torched the Summit League to the tune of 1,194 points with 42% shooting from deep. He’s a bucket-getter in the purest sense of the word. Pull-up threes, spot-up threes, drives to the hoop, you name it. He’s getting his.

Jenkins Jr. has proven that he can fill it up under Otzelberger’s tutelage, who recruited him to South Dakota State in the first place. With a redshirt season under his belt, Jenkins Jr. is set to slide in alongside Hamilton to form one of the most dangerous perimeter duos in college basketball. Similar to Hamilton, though, is the need to show a more complete game to take the next step, which is something Otzelberger told Blue Ribbon Yearbook in the preseason.

“The biggest thing for his progression which is similar and different to Bryce is he has to have that engagement defensively on the glass and in all those other areas for us to win.”

There’ll surely be a feeling out period in how to allocate touches and when, but the potential is there for the two to become a nightmare for opposing coaches.

Is there enough frontcourt depth?

As the lone senior on the roster, Cheikh Mbacke Diong will be counted upon to provide veteran leadership and be a strong presence in the paint. Mbacke Diong was among the best rebounders in the country last season, particularly on the offensive glass with an offensive rebounding rate of 13.2%, which ranked 41st in the country last year.

He’ll need help from some new faces in the frontcourt this year due to the departures of Donnie Tillman and Nick Blair. Moses Wood is likely to slide in at the other forward position alongside him, but the Tulane transfer profiles as more of a stretch-four. Otzelberger has high hopes for Edoardo Del Cadia, a JUCO transfer that he expects to provide valuable minutes. If 6’10”, 260-pound freshman Jhaylon Martinez is ready to play in small spurts, UNLV should have enough to get by. And with all of the talent on the perimeter, getting by might be all that’s needed from them to consistently win games.

X-Factor

Marvin Coleman

If Hamilton and Jenkins Jr. are expected to be the focal points of the offense, expect Coleman to be the steady presence at the defensive point of attack. The former walk-on fills the role of Otzelberger’s floor general, who told Blue Ribbon that “he needs to impose his will and make sure it goes that way on both sides from start to finish.”

Coleman’s a versatile compliment to the dynamic duo and is capable of stuffing the stat sheet wherever needed. The best example of that was his 11-point, 12-rebound, 11-assist triple-double against New Mexico last season. Oh, and he added six steals that game.

After starting the final 20 games of the season, Coleman returns as an experienced upperclassman capable of filling in the gaps wherever needed. His numbers may not jump off the page, but he’ll still have a major impact on winning.