Coaches Covering Ground in Search of Prospects

Marvin Menzies 3UNLV’s trip to the Bahamas this week isn’t a vacation, although the coaching staff probably deserves one.

Since the day Marvin Menzies was hired in April, he and his staff have been working at a non-stop pace, canvassing the country to recruit players from every level of the sport. No stone was left unturned—high schools, Division I colleges, junior colleges, DII jucos, international leagues—as they added piece after piece to build the current roster.

But as important as it was to put together the 2016-17 team, the greater focus was on the classes beyond—2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. As the summer went on, Menzies’ recruiting plan unfolded, to the point where I think we have a pretty good idea of how the Rebels will be constructed in the future during his tenure:

Phase One: Southern California

The most prominent pillar of the long-term recruiting plan is Menzies’ longstanding connection to the Southern California area. Menzies was born in Los Angeles, and he got his coaching start in the city at Hamilton High School (1983-1991). From there he moved to Santa Monica CC (1994-96), Sacramento State (1996-97), Santa Monica CC again (1997-99), San Diego State (1999-2003) and USC (2003-04). His first coaching job outside the state came when he joined Lon Kruger’s staff at UNLV in 2004.

To hear Angelinos tell it, Menzies spent that time building special relationships within the local recruiting scene.

“If you’ve played basketball in Los Angeles, everyone knows Marvin,” says LA native and former Rebel Chris Popoola, who now works as a national college recruiting consultant. “I’ve known Marvin for 20 years, since my junior year in high school when he was recruiting for Santa Monica. His pipeline is southern California. He’s tied in.”

Menzies has been mining SoCal for decades, according to Dinos Trigonis, a noted Cali hoops guru who runs the prestigious Pangos All-American Camp.

“I’ve known him since he was an assistant coach at Santa Monica City College,” says Trigonis. “He was well known at that time as a very good recruiter at the junior college level, and he did a very good job. When Steve Fisher got the San Diego State job in the late 1990s, he was looking for an LA guy with a juco background and that was Marvin.”

Menzies cleaned up in his backyard, helping to stock San Diego State with local talent as the then-burgeoning program developed into a Mountain West power. Menzies was instrumental in recruiting several core players, including Evan Burns, who in 2002 became the first McDonald’s All-America selection to choose the Aztecs.

Menzies built his network the old-fashioned way, by putting in face time at every school in the region and letting his personality do the rest. The decades he spent on the Cali recruiting trail have helped him build a lengthy list of contacts, which should come in handy at UNLV.

“He’s networked his way through and done a great job getting into all the high schools and jucos and shaking hands with everybody,” Popoola says. “He’s a guy that walks into any gym in LA and everyone calls him ‘Marv.’ He knows everybody. I call him a one-degree guy. You know how there’s six degrees of separation? With Marvin, it’s only one degree. He can make one phone call and get anyone on the phone.”

Menzies didn’t waste much time in putting that rolodex to use. The coaching staff spent a good chunk of its time this summer tracking the top California talent, and they’ve begun extending offers to prospects in the Classes on 2018, 2019 and 2020. That approach represents a departure from the previous UNLV regime, which did not emphasize recruiting the SoCal area.

“Historically, under Tarkanian it was [a pipeline],” says Trigonis. “I think a mistake they made recently was that they basically ignored southern California. There’s nothing wrong with recruiting nationwide if you’re at UNLV, but you’ve got to use LA as one of your recruiting bases.”

Menzies is clearly focused on reopening that pipeline. In filling out his staff, he made a point of bringing in assistant Eric Brown, another LA native who has spent all but one season of his entire 22-year coaching career in southern California (he was at Iowa State for the 2006-06 season). Brown most recently served as an assistant at Long Beach State (2006-2015), where he received praise for his local recruiting efforts.

“[Brown] is a San Fernando Valley guy,” Trigonis says. “He got into coaching at [Cal State] Northridge, and he’s been at USC and then Long Beach State. He’s tied in across the country now, but he’s another one who is well known as an LA guy.”

With Menzies and Brown combing Los Angeles, it’s only a matter of time before the Rebels start reaping the benefits of all those connections and begin pulling in high-level talent from the area. This stage of the recruiting plan is already in motion.

Phase Two: Chicago

When Menzies got the job and surveyed his roster, he saw more questions than answers. Decimated by transfers and declarations for the NBA draft, the program lacked enough players to field a team for the 2016-17 season. That meant Menzies had to act fast.

Assistant coach Rob Jeter was instrumental in that regard. What Menzies and Brown are to Los Angeles, Jeter is to the Chicago/Milwaukee area. He grew up in Chicago and played under Bo Ryan at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville before joining Ryan’s Platteville staff in 1994. From there, he moved on to Marquette, Milwaukee and Wisconsin as an assistant before being named head coach at Milwaukee in 2005, a job he kept for 11 seasons. At all of his posts, Jeter recruited the Chicago/Milwaukee region intensely.

That means Jeter is plugged into the recruiting scene, and when the Rebels needed to fill out their roster, he was able to work those connections—quickly. The Rebels added four Chicago/Milwaukee-area players over the summer, and they were the type of recruits who may have flown under the radar if it weren’t for Jeter’s deep understanding of the local scene. True freshmen Ben Coupet and Zion Morgan were under-recruited high school seniors who were willing to sign right away, while Jovan Mooring was a former prep star who found himself buried at the Division II level of junior college. And Jeter had a special relationship with the fourth player, former Milwaukee point guard Jordan Johnson. Johnson worships Jeter and was willing to follow him to UNLV, even though it meant sitting out a year.

It was important for UNLV to be able to fast-track those players, but Jeter doesn’t shop exclusively at the consignment store—he’s a big-game hunter as well. The Rebels have offered several elite Chicago/Milwaukee area players from future classes, like 2018 Chicago guard Ayo Dosunmu (the No. 59 player in his class according to ESPN) and 2018 Milwaukee product Tyler Herro (ranked No. 46), and Jeter is taking the lead.

Herro’s AAU coach made no secret of Jeter’s role in the recruitment of Herro, one of the nation’s top shooters.

“Rob’s got a great reputation,” says Sean White, coach of the Wisconsin Playground Warriors 16U squad. “He recruits that Milwaukee area fantastically. Now that UNLV’s got him, they’ve got a good shot [at landing Herro]. Rob’s had his eye on Tyler for two or three years. Right now Tyler is wide open.”

Like Los Angeles, the Chicago/Milwaukee region produces top talent year after year. And as was the case with LA, the previous UNLV staff had almost no recruiting presence in Chicago/Milwaukee. Jeter provided an introduction this summer, bringing in some intriguing prospects to fill out the roster, but in time the hope is that Jeter will be able to work the area for elite, blue-chip recruits.

Phase Three: The Northeast

The third prong of UNLV’s recruiting attack appears to be the northeast region of the country, where assistant Andre LaFleur has spent the past decade bringing NBA-caliber talent to UConn and Providence.

Like Menzies and Brown, LaFleur is actually a Los Angeles native, but he left SoCal when Jim Calhoun recruited him to play at Northeastern University in Boston. LaFleur then developed his coaching reputation while serving as an assistant in various roles under Calhoun at UConn from 2001 to 2011. For the last six years of his UConn stint, LaFleur was the program’s recruiting coordinator and was responsible for landing future lottery picks Kemba Walker and Hasheem Thabeet.

“I’m sure he’s going to be a top recruiter [at UNLV], if not the top recruiter,” says Adam Finkelstein, a national recruiting analyst for ESPN. Finkelstein has coached at the high school and college levels in New England and runs NewEnglandRecruitingReport.com, and he also served as a team manager at UConn for one season while LaFleur was director of basketball operations, so he’s familiar with LaFleur’s body of work.

“That’s a role he grew into at UConn,” Finkelstein says. “The years he was at UConn were kind of the pinnacle of their success during coach Calhoun’s time there. He worked his way up to where he was the top recruiter at UConn and it was a big deal for Providence to be able to get him away. He was a top recruiter at Providence and brought instant credibility to that program with Ed Cooley. [LaFleur] gave them an instant boost of credibility on the recruiting trail, and I think he’ll do the same thing at UNLV.”

After moving to Providence as the top lieutenant on Ed Cooley’s staff, LaFleur continued to reel in pro prospects, including Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, a pair of east coasters who heard their names called in this summer’s NBA draft.

Helping to put so many players in the NBA has boosted LaFleur’s stock as a recruiter.

“Andre is an original LA guy,” says Popoola, “but he’s been getting it done on the east coast for a long time now in terms of recruiting. He’s a relationship guy as well as a really strong X’s and O’s guy. He’s a big reason why Providence had their run of good seasons. I think he’s an NBA coach.”

Like Jeter, LaFleur has already made his mark at UNLV, as he was the driving force in securing a commitment from freshman center Cheickna Dembele. A native of Mali, Dembele played only one season of high school basketball in the United States (at a prep school in Chambersburg, Pa.) and became a hot recruit late in his senior year. LaFleur was able to leverage his sterling reputation in the northeast to beat out schools such as Syracuse, Maryland, Temple and Pitt, and Menzies has pointed to Dembele as the centerpiece of UNLV’s 2016 recruiting class.

With LaFleur leading the way, UNLV continues to drill down in the northeast. The Rebels recently offered Class of 2017 forward Hasahn French, the No. 5 player in the state of Massachusetts, and 2018 forward Sid Wilson, the No. 2 player in New York. Both were being recruited by Providence when LaFleur was on staff, so it’s safe to say he is very familiar with both players. When French trimmed his list to 13 schools a couple weeks ago, UNLV made the cut. That bodes well for the Rebels’ future forays into the northeast corridor, though LaFleur’s reach doesn’t end there.

“His reputation is a recruiter, a relationship maker, a guy who knows players and talent and has connections not just in New England, but far beyond that,” Finkelstein says. “He’s a guy that certainly has inroads to talent from all over the country and even internationally. He’s done a lot of things on the east coast in the past, but he’s a guy who can tap into his relationships anywhere. I think when you’ve got those contacts and that reputation and when you’ve got his resume, you’ve got something you can really build on.”

The Blueprint

It requires putting some puzzle pieces together and connecting some dots, but that appears to be the basic outline of the Rebels’ recruiting strategy under Menzies. Is that the entire plan? Of course not—UNLV won’t recruit those regions exclusively. They’ve already offered players from places outside of the wheelhouse like Arizona and Michigan, and incoming freshman Djordjije Slijivancanin is a typical Menzies international recruit (though he played half a season at a prep school in Florida last year).

And then there’s the local angle. Las Vegas regularly produces a ton of basketball talent, and Menzies seems determined to erect a wall around the valley, starting with 2017 targets Troy Brown and Charles O’Bannon. The coaching staff put in a lot of time watching Brown and O’Bannon during AAU season, so it’s safe to say Vegas kids will be a priority under this staff.

All of that figures into the blueprint as well. But with Menzies, it’s likely there will always be a heavy Los Angeles flavor to the Rebels’ recruiting efforts.

“This staff is focused and aggressive, and I expect to see them build a strong base in Nevada and southern California,” Popoola says. “I also expect some international players. At New Mexico State he did a great job of pulling guys out of Canada, and he has a real strong African connection. Southern California is home though, and he’s going to pull whatever he needs to pull from there.”

It’s going to take more than one (shortened) offseason to get all the various pipelines producing on a consistent basis. But the staff’s connections around the country have led to promising results already, and Menzies and his assistants have made enough progress on the recruiting trail to give the fan base confidence moving forward.

If his plan succeeds and top recruits start coming back to Las Vegas, Menzies will have a real shot at getting the program up and runnin’ again.

Vegas Seven

DTLV

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