Brandon McCoy quickly getting up to speed with fitness

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas News Bureau

Arizona guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright reaches in on UNLV’s Brandon McCoy at the Thomas & Mack Center, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017. Arizona won 91-88.

Is it possible we haven’t seen the best of Brandon McCoy yet?

The five-star freshman center has certainly been impressive so far, as he leads UNLV in scoring (20.0 points per game) and blocks (1.8 per game), but earlier this week the big man said he’s still getting used to the college game.

To be precise, he’s still adapting to the pace of Division I basketball and the conditioning needed to perform at peak efficiency.

“I’m probably adjusting to how long I’m playing,” McCoy said. “I’m starting to play more and more minutes, and just the pace — it’s really fast and it’s still kind of going fast for me.”

McCoy is averaging 26.8 minutes though the first nine games (fourth-most on the team), but he’s seen his court time increase steadily since the start of the season. Coach Marvin Menzies eased him in early, as he didn’t log more than 25 minutes in any of the first four games. But then McCoy played 27 dominant minutes in a win over Utah, and he topped the 30-minute mark in each of the next three contests, including 67 total minutes in back-to-back overtime games against Northern Iowa and Arizona.

And 30-plus minutes in Menzies’ system can be more taxing than an ordinary college team. UNLV plays at a relentless pace — the Rebels rank 11th in KenPom.com’s adjusted tempo, and they’re ninth in possessions per game — so it takes a lot of effort for the 7-foot, 250-pound McCoy to keep up.

When McCoy arrived on campus, he was immediately immersed in UNLV’s strength and conditioning program. Menzies said his young star has made consistent progress with his fitness.

“Brandon was in pretty good shape in high school, as I recall,” Menzies said. “But he definitely got in better shape when he got here. He’s a lot stronger, he’s lost some body fat and he’s a lot leaner. His body mass is in good shape and he’s heading in the right direction.”

Because UNLV plays so fast and with so many possessions, Menzies wants to be able to substitute freely and keep fresh bodies on the court at all times. To accomplish that, he trusts his players to pull themselves out of games as soon as they begin to tire. Playing through fatigue is frowned upon.

McCoy said he tries to adhere to the rule, and that his conditioning has allowed him to play for longer stretches without losing effectiveness.

“Most of the time, I make [Menzies] take me out,” McCoy said. “If I’m dead tired, I’ll probably say I need like 30 seconds. But most of the time it’s him that has to take me out because I don’t want to leave.”

McCoy only played 20 minutes in the Rebels’ most recent game, a 92-66 win over Oral Roberts on Tuesday, but only because he was limited by foul trouble. If Menzies needs to stretch him out, he knows McCoy can handle extended minutes.

Against Northern Iowa, McCoy checked in with 12:43 remaining in the second half and did not sub out until there was less than a minute left in overtime and UNLV trailed by 10 points. Three days later against Arizona, McCoy checked in with 10:09 left in the second half and played the rest of regulation. He did appear to finally tire in overtime, and Menzies replaced him with backup center Cheickna Dembele for some offense/defense substitutions.

Once the Rebels get into the Mountain West schedule and the scores begin to tighten, expect to see McCoy topping the 30-minute mark more often. And if his early-season performance is any indication, he’ll be up to speed.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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