Marvin Menzies walked into an almost impossible situation. When he took over as UNLV’s head coach on April 16, players were fleeing the program (via transfer as well as the NBA draft) and recruits were backing out of their commitments at an alarming rate. And there was very little time to replace them.
Menzies did his best to stop the hemorrhaging. He couldn’t manage to keep any of the incoming recruits from the Class of 2016, but he did convince sophomore Jalen Poyser and junior Dwayne Morgan to stay put, which helped stabilize the roster. Then he went about formulating a recruiting plan.
Since then, Menzies has completely overhauled the roster by bringing in nine newcomers, pulling recruits from the high school ranks, the Division I transfer market and the junior college level. It was a complicated process, as Menzies had to juggle needs at multiple positions, the importance of staggering classes and the fact that he took over so late in the 2016 recruiting cycle.
With several major AAU tournaments converging on Las Vegas this week, recruiting news is going to take center stage for the Rebels. I sat down with Menzies to talk about his approach to building UNLV’s incoming class, his long-term recruiting strategy and his vision for the program.
How did you go about formulating your immediate recruiting strategy after you were hired at UNLV?
The first thing I looked at was, what were the needs of the class? We only had three scholarship players coming back, so what classes were they? And then we needed every position. Every super talented guy that was left, we needed to get them. And as we would get a guy [to commit], we’d say, “Okay, what do we need next now that we’ve got five guys? Now that we’ve got seven?” And as you acquire new players, then you can obviously make your assessments going forward. So it was kind of like a moving target. It was a fluid flow chart. We had to get the best talent and the best character that we could get, and not necessarily in that order. And then fill in the pieces…Now that we have a roster, we can go through the process of saying, “What position do we need in [the 2017 class]? What position do we need in 2018?” And so on and so forth. So it’s kind of like when you’re making a painting or a piece of art, and you have this big vision of what you want it to look like at the end, but you have to make very specific strokes as you’re creating your masterpiece. And as it’s unfolding, then it starts to come to form as what you envisioned it to be. So that was kind of the big picture approach.
What were the top priorities when you started recruiting your first class?
I thought the first thing was, who are the best available players that are out there? And there was a big-time point guard, there was a four-star center, there were a couple high school players, and so it was like, let’s get a couple big pieces first. Cheickna [Dembele] was big, because I think he’s a high-major talent and a great character kid. He was somebody who I felt like would be a critical piece to build on for our future success. And then you get other pieces that came in after that, but if I had to narrow it down to one, I think that would be it. And then Kris Clyburn was another, because Kris gave us a little bit of experience and a talented player that was recruited very heavily. So those two kind of kicked it off for me, and then it was kind of like, what else do we need?
Taking over a team with so many holes in the roster, how do you balance short-term goals with your long-term plan?
As you put this together, you don’t handcuff yourself for 2017 and 2018, but you can put some talent out there that can help you be competitive right away. I don’t want to wait forever to be good. It’s a fine line between trying to be really good early and building a program. You really only have one opportunity to build a program, and that’s when you first get a program, so philosophically I would say that was the big picture thought process to all of it. I’m trying to put together a team, but not at the expense of being bad in your second year and your third year because you’ve [added fifth-year transfers] and lost all these starters. So you have to stagger your classes accordingly.
Do you feel like you achieved your recruiting goals for this offseason?
I thought I was close. I don’t think I hit it on every mark. I would have liked to have one more fifth-year senior who was really talented who could come in and help us and give us an impact right away. I got Christian Jones and Uche Ofoegbu. Getting another player like that was the mindset. Do I think we made it? Eh, I think we were close. I think we got to about 85 or 90 percent of what our target was.
What is your strategy for the rest of the summer?
Bringing in some kids that really want to be Rebels. I think that’s important…We want guys who are going to be Rebels when their eligibility is exhausted—they’re still Rebels. The other thing is, obviously, we need some of the best players in the country. Even if they’re one-and-done or two-and-done, as long as their mindset is, “I’ll go when I’m ready.” They don’t come in with any preconceptions of, “I’m only going to college for a year or two years.” They may end up being here for only a year or two years, but that’s not their attitude coming in. They want to get educated, they want to enjoy the college experience and they want to go through the development process the way I implement it. Kids that say, “I’m going to college for one year,” I’m not recruiting those guys.
Do you feel UNLV can compete for elite recruits in the Classes of 2017 and 2018?
I think you can. I think the brand of UNLV and the city of Las Vegas, there’s so much that has been invested into our program since I was here last time that I think we can go toe-to-toe with top 25 programs. We charter to every single game. Other coaches say they charter and then they go to five or six games. We charter to every single game. We have USA Basketball here. We have the NBA summer league here. This city is off the chart. The Thomas & Mack is one of the top facilities in college basketball. The program is strong, and so I don’t think that we’re in an uphill battle to compete against some of those other schools. And you’ve got Las Vegas, man. Some families want to relocate here. We’ve got great weather. There’s so much to offer. I think we can compete against anybody with the kids that want to be here. And then we’ve got local guys that we’re on big-time that we would love to keep home. And then there are kids in California and Arizona as well, where this is close enough for the family to see them play. So there are a lot of advantages to get those upper echelon kids.
What type of players do you want to target?
I have a system. I’m fully confident in my system, but at the same time you have to adjust to the program you’re at. When I was at New Mexico State, I just had to get the best talent I could get and then just coach around it. We had bigs there that were 7-foot-5, 7-foot-3, 7-feet. Yeah, I’m going to take them there, but I don’t know if I’m going to take that same player [at UNLV] if he can’t run. Here, I think you can recruit a type of player that can fit a system, where at New Mexico State I had to recruit the best talent and create a system to fit the players. Here, it’s a little bit different. I think you have the ability to go after an upper echelon player who you think has the ability to fit the system you play, and not vice-versa.
How important is this summer for recruiting future classes?
It’s a building block for your 2018’s and 2019’s. We’re late on a lot of 17’s. You’ve got 17’s who were already committed when I got the job. We try to get involved with those guys and do our background on those guys, but to get my wish list on 17’s is going to be a little bit challenging. Now, are there guys in 2017 that could fit the bill? Yes, and we’re involved with them, but we’ll see where it goes. This summer is very important because you’ve got to get a few pieces. We’ve already got some in place. We’ve got some guys that we’ve signed that are on the team that are Rebels right now that we can complement with guys we can get this summer. But I’m also looking at a three-, four-, five-year paradigm…So is it the end of the world if we miss out on some 17’s? No, but it is important to get the ones we are going after.
What is your long-term vision for the program?
You can’t lay out a program with a one-year plan. You have to lay out not even just a three- or four- or five-year plan, but sometimes a 10-year plan as well. And my hope would be that we’d be able to compete for national championships one day. But I understand that’s going to be a process and I understand that that will be a goal. But how do we get there? Well, you have to put the building blocks and the foundation together. A lot of that has already been accomplished. We’ve got facilities. We’ve got two kids that were drafted into the NBA this year. So there’s a lot of things that are in place that are positive things that I had nothing to do with, but that I’m going to reap the benefits from. So you have to figure out your end game. For us, that’s to win a national championship.