UNLV lost the first game of the Marvin Menzies era on Friday, falling at home to South Alabama, 76-68. For the casual fans who want to support a ready-made winner, feel free to check out now and return again around this same time next year. The 2016-17 season isn’t likely to end in glory for the Rebels, so if wins and losses are your only metric for success, Friday’s game is a pretty good indication of how the season is going to shake out.
The Rebels’ inexperience was a detriment, as was their lack of cohesion at both ends of the floor. There were also personnel issues, as UNLV lacked the size and depth to compete with South Alabama under the basket. These problems aren’t likely to go away anytime this season, so what you see is probably what you’re going to get the rest of the way.
For the diehards who plan to follow along every step of the way, however, Friday served as a starting point for a very long road back to contention. There were some positives—the energy level was high, the individual talent shone through at certain points (not often enough, obviously), and the commitment was evident—and for a coach like Menzies, who realizes the huge rebuilding effort he’s undertaking, that’s where he can start to lay the foundation.
On the floor, Christian Jones got the Rebels off to a quick start, scoring 12 of his 20 points in the first half, but the rest of the Rebels failed to do their part offensively. Kris Clyburn and Jalen Poyser carried the scoring load in last week’s exhibition games, but they found the South Alabama defense to be less forgiving, as Clyburn battled through a knee injury to post 13 points on 3-of-12 shooting and Poyser went just 3-of-11 from the field while putting up 17 points.
Tyrell Green’s second 3-pointer of the night brought UNLV within 57-55 with 7:03 to play, but South Alabama’s Georgi Boyanov hit a triple of his own on the ensuing possession and the Rebels never got closer than four points the rest of the way.
Boyanov finished with 13 points and six rebounds, while Don MuepoKelly led South Alabama with 18 points. Jones paced the Rebels with 20 points and 13 rebounds.
Let’s take a look at why UNLV fell short:
UNLV played fast enough, amassing 76 possessions on the night, but the Rebels simply weren’t efficient with their offensive chances. They committed 16 turnovers, with the point guard tandem of Jalen Poyser and Jovan Mooring each racking up four giveaways, and the Rebels made just 2-of-15 attempts from 3-point range (13.3 percent). That led to an anemic 0.895 points per possession, while South Alabama cruised along at 1.013 PPP.
UNLV’s efficiency metrics would have been even worse had it not been for a huge free-throw disparity. The Rebels attempted 34 FTs (24-of-34) to South Alabama’s nine, and even that wasn’t enough to keep the offense afloat.
Marvin Menzies said after the game that he was disappointed in the team’s execution and shot selection, specifically some of the quick and contested 3-pointers the Rebels launched in the first half. The backcourt trio of Poyser, Clyburn and Uche Ofoegbu combined to shoot 7-of-30 from the floor and 0-of-8 from 3-point range.
Rebounding is going to be a huge issue for the Rebels until they get injured big men Dwayne Morgan and Cheickna Dembele back on the court, and it may remain a trouble spot even after they return. Case in point: South Alabama hammered the Rebels’ frontcourt to the tune of 14 offensive rebounds and 16 second-chance points, many of which negated good defensive possessions from UNLV and cut off any momentum the Rebels tried to build in their comeback attempt.
Without the defensive-minded Morgan and Dembele on the front line, South Alabama pounded the ball inside and scored 46 of its 76 points in the paint (UNLV registered just 28 points in the paint). Menzies said he hopes to get Morgan back for limited minutes in the next week or so, while Dembele is going to be out longer than that. For a Rebels team desperate for reinforcements, they can’t return soon enough.
Experience is not a strength for the Rebels, and it showed in Game 1. Menzies utilized a four-man bench rotation against South Alabama, and all four were making their Division I debuts, with three being true freshmen. The bright lights may have been a little too much for them on Friday, as the group of Zion Morgan, Djordjije Sljivancanin, Troy Baxter and Jovan Mooring combined to play 37 minutes while contributing just three points on 1-of-5 shooting. They turned it over six times and went 0-of-3 from 3-point range.
Some nerves are to be expected, but UNLV can’t win with that kind of bench play. Dwayne Morgan will lend some experience and lengthen the rotation when he returns, but internal improvement from the youngsters will be critical for the Rebels throughout the season.