Five questions for UNLV basketball ahead of first practice

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Steve Marcus

Brandon McCoy runs upcourt during UNLV Runnin’ Rebels basketball practice at Mendenhall Center Monday, July 31, 2017. Shakur Juiston is at left.

Last year, it seemed like UNLV supporters were counting down the days until the end of basketball season. The Runnin’ Rebels’ 11-21 campaign featured an overmatched roster with little hope of competing, even in the middling Mountain West, so who could blame fans for throwing in the towel?

The situation couldn’t be more different this season. Expectations are sky-high for Year 2 under coach Marvin Menzies, as a brilliant recruiting class and some key returners will give UNLV as much talent as any team in the league. After a four-year drought, the NCAA tournament is back in play.

The new and improved Rebels will hold their first official practice of the season on Saturday, and they’ll have 42 days to come together as a team before the regular-season opener against Florida A&M on Nov. 11.

With that in mind, we’ve got five important questions for UNLV as the preseason begins:

How will the Rebels play?

We didn’t get to learn much about Menzies as a coach last season, as the slapped-together roster simply wasn’t good enough to win. That’s not the case this year, as Menzies brought in a top-notch recruiting class that should be able to play his preferred style of basketball.

But what style is that? Menzies has had success playing up-tempo, and he’s had success slowing things down. His New Mexico State teams ran the gamut, from ranking No. 22 in the nation in KenPom.com’s adjusted tempo stat in 2011-12 to ranking No. 256 in 2014-15. And Menzies made the NCAA tournament in both seasons, so he can win either way.

He has said that he prefers to play fast, and that at UNLV he could recruit the type of athletes that style requires. Last year’s patchwork roster ranked 169th in adjusted tempo. Now that Menzies has got the kind of players he wants, we should see him use this preseason to start to implement his system.

Is Brandon McCoy the real deal?

At 6-foot-11, star freshman Brandon McCoy will be the biggest player on the team, and due to his skill set, perhaps the most important. If he plays up to his potential, he can have a huge impact on offense and defense and help UNLV climb back toward the top of the Mountain West.

But before the coaching staff entrusts him with the fate of the team, McCoy will have to prove himself in practice. If he competes at a high level and shows the skills that made him a McDonald’s All-American and a top-10 recruit, Menzies will feel comfortable handing him the keys.

McCoy certainly looked like an impact player over the summer while playing with the USA Basketball Under-19 team. Competing in the FIBA World Cup in Cairo, Egypt, McCoy was USA's second-leading scorer (11.0 points per game), second-leading rebounder (8.3) and top shot-blocker (1.6). That kind of production would make him a front-runner for Mountain West Freshman of the Year honors and catapult the Rebels to the top of the league standings.

Who are the shooters?

UNLV’s frontcourt looks solid, with McCoy and touted junior college transfer Shakur Juiston patrolling the paint. But in today’s game, 3-point shooting is key for any offense. UNLV was atrocious from beyond the arc last year (32.0 percent, 306th in the nation), so there will be open auditions for perimeter players who can make jump shots.

Senior guard Jovan Mooring was UNLV’s most productive 3-point shooter last year (37.2 percent, 1.8 makes per game), and senior point guard Jordan Johnson is capable from long distance (32.1 percent in 2015-16 as a junior at Milwaukee). Beyond that, there is a dearth of proven snipers.

Junior swingman Kris Clyburn showed tremendous accuracy in junior college, but he connected on just 29.1 percent of his 3’s last year. Forward Ben Coupet missed all 10 of his 3-point attempts as a freshman. That’s about it for returning players.

Can a freshman like point guard Amauri Hardy or forward Tervell Beck step up to provide that additional shooting threat? With two strong post players controlling the interior, spacing the floor will be vital for the Rebels, so the earlier Menzies and the coaching staff can start developing more shooters, the better.

Who are the impact freshmen?

Speaking of the freshmen, we know McCoy is a lock to start and play as many minutes as he can handle, but what about the rest of the incoming class?

During preseason practice in 2014, it became evident very early that little-known freshman Patrick McCaw was going to climb the depth chart quickly. Will Hardy, Beck, Mbacke Diong or Jay Green make a similar impact this season?

As covered above, Hardy has an obvious path to playing time if he can manage to knock down outside shots. Diong, a versatile 6-foot-11 forward, may be able to earn minutes with his ability to defend multiple positions. Beck can bring some scoring punch to the small forward position, and Green will be given a chance to help a thin backcourt.

The deciding factor may be how rapidly they catch on to Menzies’ system. Coaches give minutes to players they trust, and the best way to earn that trust is to learn the playbook and not make rookie mistakes. The freshmen who do that in preseason practice will have a leg up when the real games begin on Nov. 11.

Who are the breakout candidates?

There aren’t many returners from last year’s team, but one to keep an eye on is sophomore big man Cheickna Dembele. The coaching staff has been raving about him since he arrived on campus, and he has spent the offseason working on improving his body and conditioning, which should allow him to handle more minutes — if his play warrants it.

As a freshman, Dembele averaged 4.0 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 19.3 minutes per game, which is solid production for an inexperienced young player. He also led the Rebels with a block rate of 6.6 percent, which bodes well for his future as a rim protector.

If Dembele plays well from the opening practice and seizes control of the backup big man role, it will give Menzies some peace of mind, considering projected starters McCoy and Juiston are both first-year players and could need some time to adjust to Division I. Should he continue to develop, Dembele will provide the Rebels with a high-quality safety net in the paint.

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

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