The last week of April 2017 was program changing for UNLV. In the course of 24 hours, the Runnin’ Rebel brand went from the shadow of a program-worst 11-21 season to the splashy choice to win the Mountain West.
But UNLV fans have been here before. A highly touted recruiting class coming off a disappointing season. Despite Dave Rice’s ability to haul in gaudy recruit after gaudy recruit, he was fired in January of 2016 because he couldn’t win in the Mountain West.
It is time for Marvin Menzies to prove he is different.
The NCAA Tournament is too high of a standard to expect next season. Despite landing a five-star center in Brandon McCoy and the top junior college player in the country in Shakur Juiston, this roster hasn’t played together. So the bar should be lower.
UNLV has gone three straight seasons with a losing record in the Mountain West. That has to change. UNLV hasn’t won more than 10 games in conference play since the 2010-11* season. That has to change.
The Runnin’ Rebels have the roster assembled to be at the top of the Mountain West. They might not knock off Nevada just yet, who returns Jordan Caroline and has a load of power five transfers eligible this season, but UNLV can’t go 0-2 with a total margin of defeat of 63 points against the Wolf Pack.
This roster shouldn’t get run off the court by Eric Musselman.
UNLV will be led by Jordan Johnson, who sat out this past season, but transferred in from Milwaukee after finishing second in the nation in assists in 2015-16.
Jovan Mooring will return, and despite his stellar play on the pick and roll, will likely move to an off-ball scoring role after he scored 15.1 points per game in Mountain West play.
Dwayne Morgan should return from his hip and shoulder injuries to provide UNLV an aggressive leader on defense as long as he can avoid leading the Mountain West in fouls per 40 per minutes like he did in his freshman and sophomore seasons.
McCoy and Juiston give the front court an immediate upgrade and could prove to be a dominant defensive duo where McCoy defends the rim and Juiston brings his 12 rebounds per game average to Vegas.
Add in Cheickna Dembele, Kris Clyburn, Tervell Beck, Anthony Smith, Amauri Hardy and Mbacke Diong for depth and Marvin Menzies has plenty of puzzle pieces to work with. But he has to put the puzzle together properly, unlike his predecessor.
Even after finishing last in the Mountain West, there is evidence Menzies can piece it together properly. In his only season with Christian Jones, Menzies helped him produce his most efficient season on post ups with plays like this.
Despite UNLV being the second-worst three point shooting team and posting the worst field goal percentage around the rim in the conference, Jovan Mooring still led the Mountain West in assists per game in conference play. It was largely due to his ability to read defenses on plays Menzies set up and make them pay for trying to guard two players with one defender.
But that did not result in many wins. And now the wins have to start coming, especially in Mountain West play. At New Mexico State, Menzies made a habit of dominating the WAC. His teams were 52-10 in conference play over his last four seasons. A replication of that for UNLV would be marvelous. He doesn’t need a 16-2 season next year, but a nice 12-6 conference record would be a solid start.
The missing puzzle piece that could prevent this season from being a work of art is a shooter. None of UNLV’s incoming recruits are touted as three-point shooters. Of the returners, Jovan Mooring’s 37.2 percent leads the way followed by Kris Clyburn’s 29.1 percent. Jordan Johnson hit 32.1 percent of his threes in Milwaukee but took just 81 in 2015-16.
Without threatening shooters on the three-point line, teams can clog the paint to cut off drives and big men, something that thwarted UNLV last season, when teams would just abandon three-point shooters.
Finding some consistent shooters will eliminate the only glaring flaw on this roster. Otherwise UNLV has the point guard, the scorers and the defenders to start climbing the mountain.
*The Mountain West didn’t adopt the 18-game schedule until 2013-14.
In 2011-12 teams played 14 conference games; UNLV finished 9-5
In 2010-11 and 2012-13 teams played 16 conference games; UNLV went 11-5 and 10-6, respectively.