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Five musts for UNLV basketball in Mountain West play

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Steve Marcus

UNLV forward Joel Ntambwe (24) is covered by Cincinnati’s Keith Williams (2) and Jarron Cumberland (34) during a game at the Thomas & Mack Center Saturday Dec. 1, 2018.

UNLV is limping into Mountain West play at 6-6 after dropping its last two games (to Indiana State and Bucknell, respectively) in the Diamond Head Classic, but the season is far from over. The weak composition of the league means that there is still a chance for the Rebels to turn things around and compete over the next two months.

What has to happen in order for UNLV to salvage its season? Five musts for Mountain West play:

Find a lineup that works

The starting lineup that Marvin Menzies used for the first eight games was a wreck, as that five-man unit was getting outscored by 15.4 points per 40 minutes. Then Shakur Juiston got injured, Menzies inserted freshman Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua into the lineup, and things have gotten even worse.

Over the last four games, the lineup of Noah Robotham, Kris Clyburn, Joel Ntambwe, Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Mbacke Diong has played 27 minutes together and been outscored, 62-33. That works out to a plus/minus rating of -42.4 per 40 minutes.

The time has come to find a place in the starting lineup for sophomore guard Amauri Hardy. He already plays starter’s minutes, currently ranking third on the team in playing time, but the issue is all the bad starts that UNLV continues to endure while the starting lineup struggles to score. With Hardy on the floor to open games, UNLV might not fall into big early holes quite so consistently.

Menzies may be coming around to this line of thinking, as he subbed out Tchamwa Tchatchoua in favor of Hardy to start the second half against Bucknell.

Stop 3-pointers at all costs

Menzies puts a premium on post defense and rebounding, but once UNLV begins playing Mountain West teams, the top defensive priority has to be limiting 3-point attempts.

UNLV is a really bad shooting team. The Rebels rank in the bottom 50 in 3-point accuracy at 29.5 percent, and they’re bottom 30 in catch-and-shoot accuracy (29.1 percent). They simply can’t keep up when the opposition is raining 3’s, as we saw against Bucknell.

Unfortunately for the Rebels, half of the MWC teams rank in the top 100 in 3-point accuracy and attempts (and that’s not even including UNR, which is off to a slow start when it comes to shooting jumpers). Just about every night, Menzies will find himself game-planning against teams that can duplicate Bucknell’s approach.

Menzies might have to compromise by giving up something he loves — size — in order to shore up the Rebels’ perimeter defense. That means playing smaller, with either Diong or Tchamwa Tchatchoua on the floor, but not both. It will reduce the Rebels’ rebounding advantage and make them less physically imposing in the paint, but it’s better than the alternative: letting opponents launch 3’s at will while UNLV clanks from long range at the other end in a desperate bid to keep pace.

Develop young guards

UNLV isn’t making the NCAA tournament this season, so there’s no harm in playing for the future. That means using the final 18 games to figure out exactly what the program has in freshman guards Bryce Hamilton and Trey Woodbury.

Menzies likes his senior backcourt of Robotham and Clyburn, but with both of them shooting under 30 percent from 3-point range, there really isn't any downside to playing the young guys more often and getting them ready for next season. So far, Hamilton has played just 15.7 minutes per game; Woodbury has played just 6.6 minutes since returning from a preseason knee injury.

Ntambwe has broken out thanks to extended playing time and an expanded role within the offense; Mountain West play will be a good time to see if Hamilton or Woodbury — two projected cornerstones going forward — can do the same.

Start hot

As poorly as UNLV played in Hawaii, there is a real opportunity for the Rebels to get off to a hot start in the Mountain West. That has more to do with how bad the league is, as the first six games are all against teams ranked lower than UNLV in the KenPom.com ratings.

Four of those six games are at the Thomas & Mack Center (Colorado State, Wyoming, San Jose State, New Mexico) and two are on the road (at New Mexico, at Air Force). If the Rebels can win three of the home games and pick up a road win at Air Force, they’ll be 4-2 in league play and the team might be able to build some momentum.

Of course, the schedule gets more difficult from that point on, so starting strong is a must.

Continue grooming Ntambwe

The highlight of the first half of the season has been the growth of Ntambwe. A surprise starter on opening night, he has made the leap from hustle/energy player to go-to scorer in just six short weeks, and there is still a ton of upside left to explore.

Over the last five games, Ntambwe has posted 18.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game while making 47.6 percent of his 3-point attempts. That’s elite production, and if he can do it consistently, Ntambwe can be a building block for three more years.

There is still development to be done, however. Though Ntambwe is the starter at small forward, Menzies has been experimenting with playing the 6-foot-9 freshman at power forward for long stretches. The results have been intriguing; in 94 minutes with Ntambwe at power forward, UNLV has outscored opponents, 189-184.

Menzies has gone to that look even more frequently since Juiston’s injury, to the point where it has quickly become a staple. If Ntambwe proves he can play that position full-time, it would open up a third backcourt position and allow Menzies to play smaller and match up better against perimeter-oriented Mountain West teams.

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

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