UNLV Basketball: Previewing the Rebels’ 2020-21 Season
Rebels picked 4th; three players earn preseason accolades
Can UNLV book its first Big Dance appearance since 2013?
2019-20 AT A GLANCE
- 2019-20 Record: 17-15 (12-6 MW, T-2nd; lost in MW quarters)
- Final DPI ranking: #107 overall, #6 in MW
- Offseason Departures: Amauri Hardy, Donnie Tillman, Elijah Mitrou-Long, Nick Blair, Jonah Antonio, Vitaly Shibel
2020-21 season preview
- Head Coach
- TJ Otzelberger (2nd year, 17-15 overall at school)
- Projected Starters
- Marvin Coleman, G, Jr. – 6.9 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 2.3 APG
- David Jenkins, G, RS Jr. – 19.7 PPG (’18-19, SD State)
- Bryce Hamilton, G, Jr. – 16.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.4 APG
- Nick Blake, G/F, Fr. – #155 in 247Sports Composite
- Cheikh Mbacke Diong, C, Sr. – 7.7 PPG, 7.9 RPG
- Projected Bench: Moses Wood, Caleb Grill, Edoardo Del Cadia, Jhaylon Martinez, Isaac Lindsey, Donovan Yap, Devin Tillis, Reece Brown, Kendrick Gilbert (W), Trey Hurlburt (W)
The @MountainWest released its 2020-21 preseason all-conference team and predicted order of finish Wednesday in conjunction with the start of its virtual media days.#UNLVmbb is predicted to finish 4th, while… pic.twitter.com/zY1dSsgeqU
— UNLV Men's Basketball (@TheRunninRebels) November 11, 2020
UNLV comes into the season with high hopes of breaking into the top tier of the Mountain West, having been picked to finish fourth in the league’s preseason poll. Besides the optimism surrounding the team’s placing, individual accolades came in for three promising Rebels. Guard Bryce Hamilton was named to the preseason All-MW Team, while David Jenkins Jr. and Nick Blake took home Preseason Newcomer of the Year and Preseason Freshman of the Year, respectively.
While Hamilton may have technically received the highest praise from the preseason pollsters, the big story of this UNLV team is the reunion of Jenkins and coach TJ Otzelberger. The pair excelled for two seasons at South Dakota State, helping lead the Jackrabbits to heaps of Summit League glory. Now, they will see whether their partnership can be equally productive in the Mountain West.
Jenkins should slot in nicely for departed Amauri Hardy in a lead guard role and should feel very comfortable taking on Hardy’s volume of shots in the Rebel offense. In two seasons at South Dakota State, the Tacoma native nailed 196 three-pointers at an eye-popping 42% clip. As a sophomore, he shot an even more absurd 45.3% from beyond the arc on 247 attempts, while averaging nearly 20 points per game.
In case you need to see it to believe it, just have a look at Jenkins’ 35-point performance against Memphis back in 2018:
The redshirt junior came over along with Coach O following the 2018-19 season, but sat out last season due to transfer rules. Now that Hardy has moved on to greener (and yellower) pastures at Oregon, the door is open for Jenkins to make this his team.
He will have to share that ownership with Hamilton, whose star turn last season was a major factor in the Rebels’ strong finish — but sharing the spotlight should be nothing new for Jenkins, whose former Jackrabbits teammate Mike Daum entered hallowed ground as one of the few 3,000-point scorers in NCAA history.
Hamilton came off the bench for the first season and a half at UNLV, but after registering a combined 61 points in games against Nevada and New Mexico last year, he was thrust into the starting lineup for the final 11 games of the campaign. He finished the season averaging 16 points and 5.5 rebounds, which was enough to earn a first-team All-MWC selection.
Jenkins and Hamilton should both make one of the (posteason) All-MWC teams this year, and there’s even a chance one of them could become the Mountain West Player of the Year. Forced to choose the more likely candidate, Jenkins probably has the higher points-per-game ceiling and that could be the deciding factor.
Perhaps that’s putting the cart ahead of the horse, though. Regardless of what individual accolades those two might receive, there are still questions about how well the team as a whole can compete in the Mountain West. The key to doing so is going to be keeping things tight on defense.
Those efforts begin with stalwart center Cheikh Mbacke Diong. The Senegalese senior might not be the flashiest player on the court, but he might just be the most important for the Rebels. Earlier in the offseason, Diong was highlighted in our Five for ’21 lists for his prowess in both rebounding and shot-blocking. He is most lethal as an offensive rebounder, but his ability to defend the interior has improved steadily over his career. That upward swing needs to continue for the Rebels to repeat their top-half finish in 2020-21.
Marvin Coleman is another player to watch. At the Mountain West media day, Otzelberger said of the junior guard, “Marvin is a coach out on the floor for us. I trust him with our program as much as anybody. We’ve entrusted Marvin with a whole lot of leadership in this program and we will continue to do that going forward.”
Past that, the UNLV lineup may see some volatility. With Blake’s early nod as the league’s best incoming freshman, it’s likely that he will log big minutes for a Rebels team that should feature a lot of four-guard looks. Forward depth is an issue for this team, but they may be able to slash and shoot their way around it with the talent they have in the backcourt.
As for some of the other new faces joining the team, there’s plenty of reason for optimism. Between JUCO forward Edoardo Del Cadia and a pack of three-star freshmen in Blake, Jhaylon Martinez, Isaac Lindsey, and Donovan Yap, it should be no surprise that the Rebels scored the best recruiting class in the Mountain West, per 247Sports. Martinez, Del Cadia, and Blake give the Rebels the kind of frontcourt-capable depth that has lacked in recent years. Devin Tillis and Reece Brown also join the team as new scholarship players.
On the D1 transfer front, in addition to Jenkins becoming eligible, so too are Caleb Grill and Moses Wood. Otzelberger recently told Jon Rothstein that Grill, a transfer from Iowa State, could be one of the team’s better newcomers. Wood, meanwhile, could see a lot of minutes out of necessity, as the 6-8 Tulane transfer is finally able to suit up in the scarlet and grey after sitting out last year along with Jenkins.
Oh, and just in case there was any worry that UNLV’s recruiting success might be a one-year flash in the pan, consider that TJ Otzelberger has been crushing the 2021 class even harder:
UNLV’s incoming 2021 recruiting class:
No. 36 Zaon Collins
No. 39 Arthur Kaluma
No. 215 Keshon Gilbert
That’s a lock to be the top class in the Mountain West and potentially one of the best in the country. https://t.co/ubhLB0ptjn
— Mike Grimala (@MikeGrimala) November 13, 2020
The Rebels have now secured the commitments of top-40, four-star recruits in Zaon Collins, a homegrown point guard prospect who turned down offers from Arizona and Texas Tech to stay in Las Vegas, and Arthur Kaluma, a power forward from Texas who chose UNLV despite holding offers from the likes of Kansas, Syracuse, Arkansas, and Arizona State. Three-star Keshon Gilbert is another Vegas-bred point guard whose #215 national ranking is certainly nothing to sneeze at. Keshon is the younger brother of freshman walk-on Kendrick Gilbert.
The new flock of freshmen will almost certainly be the top young group in the league and could be one of the better recruiting classes nationally. Given how much of the talent is local, there is a palpable buzz around the UNLV program right now. Coach Otzelberger could be building something special.
2020-21 schedule outlook
At the time of this writing, the season is still on. Who knows if that will remain true, but barring any cancellations, UNLV has one of the more exciting non-conference schedules of anybody in the Mountain West. Per the latest update from Rocco Miller on November 11, here’s how UNLV’s revamped non-conference schedule is set to play out:
Part of the revamped Maui Invitational, now taking place in Asheville, NC between 11/30-12/2. The Rebels will face North Carolina in the opener, and either Stanford or Alabama in their second game. On their way back west, UNLV has a scheduled road game at Kansas State on 12/5. The Rebels have a game lined up at SMU, date is still being ironed out. Rumors of a game between UNLV and Washington are out there, but at last check they weren’t able to work out a date. Rebels will host Montana State on 11/25.
Maui Invitational coming to Asheville, will follow mass gatherings limitations – WLOS https://t.co/ndJCqgIBzy
— Asheville News Online (@NewsAsheville) November 13, 2020
None of the opponents in the North Carolina/Stanford/Alabama triumvirate project as being easily beaten by UNLV. But if the Rebels are able to steal a win (or two!) in the “Maui” Invitational in Asheville — assuming the event is played — that would bode considerably well for the possibilities of an at-large berth. SMU and Kansas State are both much more winnable games, though it’s tough to imagine a victory over either school would really push the needle much in UNLV’s favor when it comes to NCAA Tournament selection.
As for the conference season, UNLV looks on paper like they should finish somewhere in the top half of the conference. The question is whether all the new parts will mesh together well, but it is not as though the Rebels are the only team facing that quandary. Both San Diego State and Boise State are also going to be relying heavily on new faces, and so potential exists for this team to sneak up into the top three if they both struggle. Utah State and Colorado State should also factor heavily into the action at the top of the league.
If the Rebels’ quality on paper manifests itself on the court, there is a chance that UNLV could be good enough to steal a few notable wins in the non-conference season and finish in the top three of the league. What remains to be seen is whether that kind of resume would be enough to get any at-large consideration for a program that hasn’t made an NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013.
Regardless of what happens this year, though, make no mistake: TJ Otzelberger is creating a monster in Sin City.
Andrew Dieckhoff is a USBWA member writing about college basketball for Mountain West Wire of the USA TODAY Sports Media Group. He is also the creator of the Dieckhoff Power Index basketball analytics system and provides analytics coverage for Heat Check CBB. Andrew is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer (China) and a graduate of Portland State University. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.