Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Ten new scholarship players, three returners and an almost entirely new coaching staff had their first official practice together Friday afternoon at the Mendenhall Center. There’s a long way to go for coach Marvin Menzies and company to figure out what’s in store this season, but the goals are pretty much the same as they’ve ever been.
“I know for everybody else expectations are low for us this year,” said senior guard Uche Ofoegbu. “But us? We expect to go to the tournament, we expect to do well, expect to win our conference. That’s just how we are.”
Friday was the first day that college teams around the country could hold their first practice. For the Rebels, it’s one month until their debut in an exhibition game against Dakota Wesleyan and six weeks until the regular-season opener against South Alabama.
In between now and then there’s plenty to figure out, including players separating themselves into the top of the rotation.
“The starters are going to have to earn those spots — it’s go time,” Menzies said. “… They’re going to tell me who’s going to start based on their play.”
UNLV got a head start on this process with their August exhibition trip to the Bahamas, though the entire roster wasn’t available. Freshman Troy Baxter Jr. didn’t join the program until September while junior Dwayne Morgan (injury) and freshman Cheickna Dembele (ineligible) were unable to play.
Morgan and Baxter are both practicing now, though Dembele must still watch from the sidelines both because of a foot injury and the eligibility process. A native of Mali, Africa, who last played at Scotland Performance Institute in Pennsylvania, Dembele would be a key piece to UNLV’s front court but the Rebels don’t know when they’ll have an answer on the 6-foot-11, 235-pound freshman.
Menzies said all of the paperwork has been turned in, though he described that process as only recently having been completed. Menzies is hopeful that it will be taken care of quickly, and then Dembele’s only issue would be rehabbing once he’s cleared in the next few weeks.
“It’s just a matter of a couple days I would imagine,” Menzies said.
Dembele is the tallest player listed on the roster, followed by freshman Djordjije Sljivancanin (6-10) and Baxter/Morgan (6-8), so his availability definitely matters. One of the ways to work around that is playing 6-7, 225-pound senior forward Christian Jones at the 5, which is how UNLV often played in the Bahamas, but Menzies said that’s something he would prefer to keep in his back pocket.
Another way UNLV could end up trying to overcome its size deficiency is through the high-flying Baxter, whose dunks have caused awe among teammates similar to the effect last year of freshman Derrick Jones Jr.
“Man, the type of dunks he does, he’s a momentum-shifter himself,” Ofoegbu said. “The bigs can’t really help off him because it’s an alley-oop. He helps us enhance in every aspect.”
Day by day the group is coming together and with each subsequent practice the picture of what this team can be will slowly come into focus. The goal for the first practice, Menzies said, was the same as it will be every day of the season: get better.
“You guys are going to hear me say that all year long because that’s what it really comes right down to,” Menzies said.