Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016 | 11:30 p.m.
Todd Simon’s first game as a Division I coach ended in tears. It also ended with a UNLV win.
A little more than 48 hours after fifth-year coach Dave Rice was sent packing, the Rebels and their interim coach returned to the Thomas & Mack Center to face the hottest team in the Mountain West. Through three games the Lobos hadn’t lost and the Rebels hadn’t won, and both things changed after an 86-74 victory that UNLV led nearly the entire way.
Freshman Stephen Zimmerman Jr. turned in the best game of his young career, leading scorer Pat McCaw actually led the team in scoring for the first time in a month and by the time Simon was pulled aside for CBS Sports Network’s postgame interview, the emotions of the past few days had caught up with him.
“Our kids are giving everything they have, and it’s been difficult on them,” Simon said later. “It’s been a negative environment, and to see them smile and have success, that’s what got me.”
There wasn’t a lot of time to install changes, but the ones Simon implemented worked well. The biggest thing was that the third-year assistant gave the players the first 10 seconds of the shot clock.
Until it showed 20, the Rebels were free to move around, set screens and do whatever they could to score in transition. Once the 10 were up, it was time to work through the half-court offense that has been far less efficient than UNLV’s transition this season.
“I think that pushed our tempo and that definitely helped us as an athletic team,” said Zimmerman, who had 15 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks.
UNLV (10-7, 1-3) got out to its lead by turning recent weaknesses into strengths. The Rebels created turnovers while committing few and turned the mistakes into 24 points while shooting 27-of-33 at the free-throw line.
Five Rebels finished in double-digit scoring, including Ben Carter (10 points, seven rebounds and four assists) and Jerome Seagears (10 points, no turnovers). It was really the points off turnovers that helped UNLV survive its 2-of-16 3-point shooting in the first half, and then the Rebels came out of the break on fire. UNLV’s lead got up to 22, and though there was a little consternation from the 11,377 fans fearing the worst down the stretch, the lead never dipped below double digits in the final 14 minutes.
“We want to be an attacking, in your face, smack you in the mouth offensive team as well as a defensive team,” Simon said.
Only time will tell how much of this was Simon taking over, Rice leaving or something that would have happened either way. The Rebels’ three league losses were by a combined six points, and all of the analytics suggested a bounce back was coming.
“Honestly, I feel like we pry would have played the same way if (Rice) was coaching as well. It was a lot of little things that we could have sharpened up,” said senior Ike Nwamu, who notched 15 points and three assists.
But then later Nwamu said that yes, it was beneficial, “to kind of have the reins taken off and let us go make plays,” the way that UNLV did early in the shot clock. The reality is that Simon’s messages were mostly reinforcements and not wholesale changes, but the things that were changed or tweaked were in an effort to get everything moving more freely in space and get more possessions. That worked as McCaw scored 18 on 10 shots with three assists and two steals, and UNLV had its most possessions in a game (76) since the UC Riverside win a month ago.
“That really showed in the way we shared the ball,” Simon said.
Zimmerman said that the players are trying to use their struggles and Rice’s departure as fuel for the remainder of the season. How far could that energy take them?
If every game looks like this one it could get interesting, but no reasonable person thinks everything was fixed in one game. And if UNLV had made as many free throws or committed as few turnovers as it did Tuesday night, there probably wouldn’t have been a mid-season coaching change at all.
But the Rebels didn’t do those things and the program did make a change. Three years ago Simon was coaching at Findlay Prep, and now he’s one victory into a career that’s going to have a chance to really take off this offseason, either at UNLV or elsewhere.
The Rebels are adjusting to a lot of different things right now. There are new drills, new phrases and even new seating arrangements, which was exciting for Simon’s oldest of three sons.
Simon hasn’t been home much since getting his new job, and on Monday night when he finally walked through the door, 4-year-old Rece was excited to tell his father what he had learned on the local TV news.
“You get to coach,” Rece said. “You get to stand up now.”