May 20, 2018 Currently: 85° | Complete forecast

Can Rebels learn from UNR’s rebuilding plan?

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John Byrne, University of Nevada via AP

UNR coach Eric Musselman directs his players during his first NCAA college basketball practice in Reno. Musselman learned about running a Division I program from his father and during stops at two schools as an assistant.

Rebuilding a college basketball program isn't easy, as UNLV fans well know. Marvin Menzies is in Year 2 of a massive effort to restore the Rebels to relevance, and though the team appears to be on the right track, it's definitely a process.

So how has UNR been able to pull off a large-scale rebuild under coach Eric Musselman in just three short years? The Wolf Pack have gone from Mountain West doormats to conference bullies, but it's not a blueprint that every team can follow:

Transfer talent

The single most important thing Musselman has done is massively upgrade UNR's talent level. The year before he arrived, the Wolf Pack didn't have a single player on the All-Mountain West first or second team. Last year, Marcus Marshall made the first team, while Jordan Caroline, Cameron Oliver and D.J. Fenner made the second team. This year, the Pack will likely get at least two on the first team in Caroline and Caleb Martin. Four out of those five players started their college careers at other schools.

Some coaches shy away from adding too many transfers, as they have to sit out a year before playing, and it can disrupt the natural timing cycle for traditional high school classes. Musselman has no such qualms. Only three players on the roster this season came to UNR as high school recruits, and four more transfers are currently redshirting while waiting to play in 2018-19.

Musselman is willing to play with a seven-man rotation this year in exchange for the pure talent upgrade. Leading scorer Caleb Martin is a prime example. He's currently averaging 19.8 points per game while making 46.9 percent of his 3-point shots, so Musselman was more than happy to stash him for a year after his transfer from N.C. State. And that goes for any potential star who is looking for a second chance at UNR.

Personnel philosophy

"Positionless basketball" has become something of a buzz word within the sport, but UNR is an example of that philosophy in action. Starting point guard Lindsey Drew is 6-foot-4, starting center Jordan Caroline is 6-foot-7, and everyone else on the roster is in between. And it makes the Wolf Pack a real nightmare to defend.

Because everyone on the roster is versatile and capable of switching, Musselman can mix and match his lineups and employ a style of play that few Mountain West teams can keep up with. Because every player can shoot and handle the ball and defend multiple positions, Musselman can sub anyone for anyone, depending on the situation. Point guards can post up. Centers can isolate on the wings. Power forwards can launch 3's.

Menzies knows how difficult that makes it to match up with UNR.

"The versatility they possess is one of the reasons they've been successful," Menzies said, "because they utilize mismatches, they take bigger guys off the bounce, they post up guards. [Musselman] has a lot of isolation situations that he puts his players in. Eric is doing a really good job of utilizing the personnel that he has this year to be successful."

System change

Before Musselman arrived, UNR played an old-school style that put the team at a disadvantage before the games even began. They couldn't make 3-pointers, so they didn't take any. In 2014-15 — the year before Musselman took over — the Pack ranked 350th in the nation (out of 351 teams) in 3-point percentage. And they only took 417 (which ranked 343rd). Not coincidentally, the team went 9-22 on the season and 5-13 in MWC.

Musselman immediately began phasing out players like AJ West, a bruising center who relied more on hustle and heart than he did on skill. In his place, Musselman brought in Cameron Oliver, a new-age college center who could dribble and shoot 3's. And he made similar stylistic changes at every spot on the roster.

Now, the Pack is 20th in 3-point shooting (40.5 percent), with five players who shoot 36 percent or better from long distance. They shoot 3's in transition, they shoot 3's off the dribble, and they don't think twice before firing up catch-and-shoot 3's from every spot on the floor. Not coincidentally, UNR is currently No. 9 in KenPom.com's adjusted offense stat.

By embracing modern basketball and implementing a style built around the 3-point line, Musselman has improved UNR from one of the worst offenses in the entire country to one of the best.

Turnaround man

The big question now is, how long will Musselman be the man in charge at UNR? He's transient by nature — over the last 22 years, he's had 13 different coaching jobs, and he didn't stay longer than two seasons at any of them.

This is his third season at UNR, so the clock is ticking. Musselman was rumored to be close to leaving last offseason, as Cal made a run at hiring him away. Musselman eventually turned down that offer, but it may not be long before a bigger, more attractive program successfully lures him away.

If and when that happens, there's no guarantee that the next coach will be able to sustain Musselman's model at UNR. It's such a unique program-building philosophy — tons of transfers, non-traditional skill sets, extremely analytical offensive system — that not many coaches will be able to step in seamlessly.

If Musselman departs and the program takes a step back, it would be a bad development for the Mountain West, which needs as many quality teams as it can get. But for now, everything is working, and it's up to UNLV and the rest of the league to try to get to that level.

When UNLV and UNR meet in Reno tonight (8 p.m., CBS Sports Network), it will be a perfect opportunity to measure the Rebels' rebuilding effort against a program that has already turned it around.

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

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