The UNLV Rebels lost their first four games of the season and then fell further behind with a month-long pause due to COVID-19 issues. The record written on paper (2-6) reflects the challenges the team has faced, but they still have a chance to turn it around.
“We are certainly behind where we would like to be, but I also know that we can make up that progress quickly by hard work,” head coach T.J. Otzelberger said.
UNLV had to swallow a 91-78 loss to Montana State during its season opener. While some rust was expected for the first game of the season, the sloppiness was too much. This was especially concerning because the Rebels were scheduled to face the then-No. 16 North Carolina for their following game.
Unsurprisingly, the Tar Heels took an easy 78-51 win on Nov. 30. The second half of that game saw a Rebel offense intimidated into shooting 16.67% from the field.
Fast-forward to Dec. 9 and UNLV had its game against Eastern Washington cancelled. This became the first of six games the Rebels wouldn’t play during their month-long pause. Four of those conference games have still not been rescheduled.
“It’s certainly not an excuse,” Otzelberger said of the pause. “I think overall we just have to be mindful of how we practice and how we continue to do things.”
UNLV finally returned to the court on Jan. 7 to take on its first Mountain West opponent. The product on the court was promising, but still a sweep at the hands of Colorado State with both games decided by three points.
Before the CSU series was over, UNLV announced the addition of two more non-conference home games against NAIA teams Saint Katherine and, later this month, Benedictine Mesa. The Rebels beat Saint Katherine, 95-34.
“We are appreciative to be able to find somebody on short notice that could come play and give us that experience,” Otzelberger said. “Hopefully it will pay off.”
.@bham_10 loses the defender, steps back & hits the 1st 3 of the game for #UNLVmbb & extends the Runnin' Rebels' @ncaa record to 1,110 straight games with a made 3-pointer! #BEaREBEL pic.twitter.com/xshOkBuYn1— UNLV Men's Basketball (@TheRunninRebels) January 12, 2021
Three Rebels are averaging double figures, with Bryce Hamilton’s 21.3 points per game being second-best in the conference. UNLV has potential on offense, but Otzelberger also thinks the defense could be good. Once the Rebels figured out what Saint Katherine was doing offensively, he mostly liked what he saw.
“Our guys having an intentionality of what we do defensively is important,” he said after that game. “We’re still fouling a lot more than we need to, we committed 16 fouls. We gotta be better, we can’t just put people on the foul line.”
A win against an NAIA team might not be the most impressive line on their resume, but the Rebels have a real chance to see a turning point soon as they take on the New Mexico Lobos for their next conference series.
The Lobos (4-6, 0-6 MW) haven’t been able to practice or play at home this season due to New Mexico health restrictions. Their roster is young and still trying to figure out who the go-to players are. The matchup between the Lobos and the Rebels will be interesting and could become a push in the right direction for either team.
New Mexico head coach Paul Weir said scheduling Saint Katherine was a smart move by Otzelberger because it will likely help the Rebels enter the game against the Lobos with more confidence. UNM did something similar by scheduling Dixie State, a team playing its first season of Division I basketball, on Jan. 13. The Lobos won that one 72-63.
“I’ve seen them a little bit. They’re obviously fast, they spread the floor,” said Weir, when asked about the Rebels. “They got great guard play and they play some very small lineups. It’s going to be an interesting contrast of styles.”
UNLV is set to host New Mexico on Jan. 16 at 2:30 p.m. PT and Jan. 18 at 6:30 p.m. PT.