Saturday, April 29, 2017 | 2 a.m.
They suffered through an 11-win season. You suffered alongside them, too.
We knew Marvin Menzies’ debut season leading the UNLV basketball program would be rough, but we didn’t expect it to be that rough. With each defeat in 2016-17, whether it was by nearly 50 points to Duke or giving up triple digits in Reno, you started to lose whatever optimism you had left that the Rebels would become a perennial NCAA Tournament qualifier or more. OK, a lot more, right? Those old-school supporters remember the glory days with Tark and want nothing short of a dominant power.
But the general consensus was the administration’s mismanagement of the coaching search that eventually led them to Menzies — option No. 6 or 7 — last April would set the program back years, if not a decade. With how the Rebels played last season, you started to believe that narrative.
Then, a span of 24 hours this week changed everything. The Rebels could be back sooner than expected.
Menzies pulled off an upset on the recruiting trail Wednesday by signing McDonald’s All-American big man Brandon McCoy, the 11th ranked player for the class of 2017. The following day, he hauled in Shakur Juiston, a 6-foot-7 power forward who was the junior college player of the year, and who plays with a physical nastiness the Rebels lacked last season, and three-star high school guard Amauri Hardy, who scored 30 points per game this season in Michigan.
Just like that, the Rebels' rotation next season seems pretty formidable. Just like that, the long-suffering UNLV fans again have hope. There’s a buzz for the team in the community, one that desperately lacked last season when attendance numbers dipped so drastically the athletic department lost millions.
Now, Marvin Menzies has to win. He better win.
UNLV’s six-player recruiting class is rated 12th nationally by recruiting service 24/7 Sports, meaning your patience with Menzies in building a winner won’t be as liberal. When you are hired with no time to recruit and stuck with a roster of players you essentially were forced to take to field a team, the expectations are non-existent. But when you have a recruiting class ranked higher than notables such as North Carolina, Villanova and Florida, and the best in your league, it’s a different story.
Menzies now has arguably the best roster in the Mountain West — even better the reigning league champ UNR. He built a team capable of winning next season. That means a middle-of-the-pack finish in the league won’t cut it. That means missing the NCAA Tournament, even if the program is significantly improved, would be considered a failed season. That means each game-day decision Menzies makes will be analyzed.
Those are the expectations at UNLV. Those are the expectations that Menzies, as witnessed by his recruiting, hasn’t backed down from. You agreed when took the job to give him a mulligan in the first year. Along the way, some may have forgotten about the program. Now, they are firmly back on your radar, which is downright refreshing when considering the adversity of last season.
Menzies spent nearly a decade at New Mexico State before landing his dream gig at UNLV. He mostly recruited players who were under the radar, whether they were international big men he could develop or unheralded recruits who fit into his system. But we wondered how he would do recruiting at a higher level, when he was courting prospects with offers from programs in a better situation, whether that’s a high-caliber league or to a team with a better pedigree.
Needless to say, Menzies is off to a good start. He managed to sell a McDonald’s All-American on playing for an 11-win team. More important, he went after a five-star recruit he had no business talking to. It shows Menzies’ vision for UNLV is higher than you assumed.
Menzies, it appears, has bigger plans than being Mountain West good. He’s setting UNLV up for more. He knows your expectations and is well aware he was hired to build a winner.
Now he’s got a few pieces to help in that quest. What a difference 24 hours makes.
“I wanted to start something new,” McCoy told the Sun’s Mike Grimala. “Everybody else is going to these big-name schools, but I know UNLV has a great history. UNLV used to be the No. 1 team in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so I’m thinking we could bring it back. Maybe I can be that missing piece to help UNLV get back to being that kind of team.”