Thursday, March 16, 2017 | 2 a.m.
The NCAA Tournament tips off today, and for the fourth consecutive year, UNLV will not be participating. That was to be expected, of course, as this was an obvious rebuilding season for the Rebels and first-year head coach Marvin Menzies, but that doesn’t take away the sting of irrelevance on college basketball’s biggest weekend.
The key question for the Rebels isn’t why they missed the tournament this year, it’s how can they get back to the dance as quickly as possible?
As you channel surf from game to game looking for upsets today, here’s a quick four-step plan for getting UNLV back into the bracket:
UNLV’s fastest route back to the NCAA tournament is going big. Mid-major conferences like the Mountain West aren’t hotbeds for elite post talent, so tough, skilled, athletic big men can reign unchecked, even in this 3-point heavy era.
Look at UNR’s blueprint. Three years ago, the Wolf Pack were 9-22 and among the worst teams in the league. Then Eric Musselman took over and recruited a couple of big men — center Cameron Oliver and power forward Jordan Caroline — and turned the whole program around. In Year 2 under Musselman, the Pack is 28-6 with regular-season and conference-tournament championships in hand, and they’ll square off against Iowa State today in the round of 64.
Dominating the paint the way UNR does (No. 1 in rebounding in conference play) is an attainable goal for the Rebels. Menzies utilized a similar strategy to conquer the WAC, and though UNLV fans may pine for up-tempo glory days gone by, Menzies can institute the same bully ball plan here and have success.
Cheickna Dembele has already shown potential as a shot-blocking presence, and incoming 2017 recruit Mbacke Diong gives Menzies another athletic 6-foot-11 bruiser with potential. That’s a promising start. If Menzies can land a commitment from 2017 Top 10 recruit Brandon McCoy, a 6-foot-10 center from San Diego, the Rebels can turn things around quickly by pounding the ball inside, defending the rim and beating up the rest of the league.
Scheduling is tricky business for mid-major schools. Play too many cupcakes and poor strength of schedule will kill you on Selection Sunday, but play too many good teams and you can get beaten down like the Rebels did this season. It’s a balancing act.
UNLV has an advantage because the program has enough cachet to attract quality opponents (as evidenced by recent home-and-home series with Arizona, Kansas and Oregon). The Rebels aren’t ready to play teams like that on a nightly basis, and this season’s schedule was a brutal gauntlet that did more harm than good. But as the team gets better, Menzies would be wise to continue sprinkling in games against quality opponents like Duke, or UCLA, or Gonzaga, or USC, or St. Mary’s. Wins against any of those teams would bolster the Rebels’ hypothetical resume, while losses (especially on the road) generally wouldn’t hurt too much.
Restore homecourt advantage
The Thomas & Mack Center has become a morgue in recent seasons, shrouded in a silence that completely negates any homecourt advantage. Menzies needs to do whatever he can to get fans back in the building and reestablish the Mack as a venue that opponents fear.
UNLV cannot afford to lose home games to Mountain West competition. Those are the L’s that kill the team’s RPI and KenPom ratings. The good news is that those are also the games upon which fans can impart the most impact. Show up, be loud, give the Rebels a real advantage and the program will be competing for league titles again.
Hire the right AD
At a school driven by basketball ticket sales, the Rebels’ next athletic director is going to have a hand in a lot of hoops-related activities, including everything listed above. The new guy will have to facilitate Menzies’ recruiting plans so he can land the big men he needs. The AD will have to help piece together a schedule with the perfect balance between quality opponents and bankable wins. And he’ll have to market the team to the point where fans are buying tickets again. Nail that hire, and UNLV can be dancing within two years.