Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Should UNLV bench Noah Robotham? How long will his three-point shooting slump continue? Mike Grimala and Case Keefer discuss the polarizing point guard after dissecting other parts of the roster and the Rebels' three-game losing streak.
UNLV basketball is scheduled to play 30 games in the regular season, and if you assume the Rebels play a couple more in the Mountain West tournament, that comes out to 32. They’ve played eight so far, which means we are exactly a quarter of the way through the 2018-19 campaign.
That’s a big enough sample size, so let’s big-picture this thing with a quarter-season analysis. How have the Rebels fared so far? Where have they faltered? And what can they do over the remaining 75 percent of the season to make a run?
What is working
UNLV is a pretty good defensive team, with a ceiling to be an outstanding defensive team by the end of the season. Only three Mountain West teams rate higher in KenPom.com’s adjusted defense metric (UNR, Utah State and Fresno State), and the Rebels are No. 44 nationally in points per possession allowed in half-court situations (0.772 PPP) — but those are just numbers.
Just from watching the Rebels play on that end of the court, it’s plain to see they take defense seriously. Players like sophomore Mbacke Diong and freshmen Joel Ntambwe and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua have huge potential as stoppers, and they appear to be getting better at a rapid pace.
Marvin Menzies has a deep crew of versatile defenders, which allows him to throw out multiple lineups designed to shrink the court and make life hard for the opposition. This could develop into the team’s identity by the end of the season.
Menzies (along with the vast majority of college coaches) believes players make their biggest leap from their freshman to sophomore years, and we are seeing that with Diong and Amauri Hardy.
Diong is currently averaging 8.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game while shooting 68.4 percent from the field, while Hardy is scoring 10.4 points in 22 minutes and has fans calling for him to take over as the starting point guard. That is tremendous development.
It hasn’t gone as smoothly for fellow sophomore Tervell Beck, who is playing just 14.5 minutes per game off the bench, but he had a strong freshman year and there is still time for him to make an impact in 2018-19.
Even discounting Brandon McCoy, who left college before his sophomore year, it looks like Menzies brought in a winner of a recruiting class in 2017.
The Rebels are one of the country’s best rebounding teams, ranking 11th nationally in rebounding rate (56.9 percent) and third in offensive rebounding rate (41.5 percent). That’s because UNLV is bigger and more committed to banging inside than almost all of its opponents.
UNLV’s big men have also been efficient at converting offense around the rim, shooting 57.3 percent and scoring 1.176 points per possession on shots near the basket (excluding post-ups). For comparison, the Rebels have held opponents to 50.2 percent and 1.010 PPP on similar shots.
Menzies prefers to play bigger than most teams, which has its drawbacks. But the positives are showing up in the advanced numbers.
What isn’t working
There’s no other way to say it: UNLV’s halfcourt offense has been brutal. The Rebels struggle to create open looks off the dribble, get slowed down too easily and commit way too many turnovers (23.0 percent turnover rate, 337th in the nation). For the season, the team is scoring 0.801 PPP in the halfcourt, which ranks 304th.
Poor offensive play has cost UNLV three straight games, as the Rebels could have beaten Valparaiso, Cincinnati or Illinois if they had been just a bit more efficient. This has to be Menzies’ top priority for the rest of the season.
This could fit under “halfcourt offense,” but it’s so glaring that it deserves its own space. UNLV cannot shoot from the outside, and it’s a big factor in why the offense is struggling so much.
Senior point guard Noah Robotham was expected to bring 40-percent 3-point shooting to the point guard position, but instead he is making just 23.8 percent from deep while leading the team in attempts (10-of-42). Senior Kris Clyburn is second in attempts (9-of-31) and is shooting 29.0 percent. Hardy is third in attempts (6-of-26) and checks in at 23.1 percent. Forget about that 40 percent threshold — UNLV’s top three shooters aren’t even cracking 30 percent.
That pitiful shooting across the board allows opponents to pack the paint and make life difficult for the big men, especially Shakur Juiston, who is struggling to find open space around the basket. It’s gunking up the entire offense.
Menzies is fond of saying it doesn’t matter who starts, choosing instead to focus on which lineups finish the games. That’s a well-meaning notion, but the problem is that the starting five tends to play the most minutes together — by far — of any lineup the Rebels will use this season. And so far, UNLV’s starting five is not working.
The Rebels have started the same lineup in all eight games — Robotham, Kris Clyburn, Ntambwe, Juiston and Diong — but it simply hasn’t been effective. That five-man lineup has played 65 minutes together this season, and during that time they’ve been out-scored by the opposition, 118-93.
No other lineup has played even 16 minutes together. So while Menzies may want to place more emphasis on who is finishing games, the fact is the starting five are on the court far more often than any other five.
UNLV is averaging 7,904 fans per game this season, which is on pace to be the lowest-attended season of Runnin’ Rebel basketball since the team moved into the Thomas & Mack Center. And it’s even worse than the numbers indicate, but because those 7,904 don’t make any noise at all.
Aside from a two-minute stretch in the second half against Cincinnati, the crowd has not gotten loud enough to impact any other games. UNLV may get some extra fans showing up for the San Diego State or UNR games later in the season, but considering the trend — median attendance is 7,567 — it looks like the Rebels will be playing neutral-court games the rest of the way.
How it can get better
UNLV can play smaller without necessarily surrendering their size advantage in the paint. Three-guard lineups have been working for the Rebels, and Menzies can still pair a three-guard backcourt with two legitimate big men in Juiston and Diong. That’s not ideal, but it meets Menzies’ preferred alignment half way.
The ideal configuration would be to play with three guards, with one swing forward — either Ntambwe or Beck playing as a stretch-4 — and one big man. That would mean Diong and Juiston would split up the center minutes with no true power forward beside them.
Menzies has been reluctant to play the 6-foot-8 Juiston at center for extended minutes, but when he has it has been a good look for the Rebels this season. In 19 minutes with Juiston at the 5, UNLV has outscored opponents 48-32. That works out to a plus/minus rating of +33.7 per 40 minutes, which is definitely worth exploring over the next 20 games.
Get Robotham and Juiston on track
This is probably the easiest way for UNLV to get better. The two senior starters being counted on for consistent production have underperformed greatly to this point — Robotham with his shooting and Juiston with his scoring (10.8 points). Breaking out of those slumps and returning to their normal rate of production would help the team more than any other potential solution.
That’s why Menzies has stuck with Robotham as the starter despite his struggles, and why he has told Juiston to be more aggressive. The Rebels need their seniors to play better.
Mountain West down
UNLV’s non-conference slate was panned when it was released over the summer, as critics (including me) found fault with the weak strength of schedule. But as it turns out, the Mountain West is looking so bad that the non-conference schedule may actually be tougher than the MWC games.
UNR is great and will probably go undefeated in league play. But after that, you have to squint to see any good teams. Utah State has been a pleasant surprise, but that could be a mirage. San Diego State has been a massive disappointment. Fresno State is always underwhelming in the regular season. New Mexico has fallen back to the pack. It’s a mess.
When viewed through that prism, UNLV looks like a middle-of-the-pack kind of team, and if the Rebels hit their ceiling in March they could even take out a couple of the other pretenders in the MWC tournament. Is that as far along as fans expected the rebuilding process to be in Year 3 under Menzies? Probably not, but the potential is there to take advantage of a weak conference and bring a little excitement to March in Las Vegas.