Saturday, March 10, 2018 | 2 a.m.
When the Mountain West Conference tournament championship game tips off on Saturday, UNLV will be watching from the sidelines. The Rebels saw their season end on Thursday with a loss to regular season conference champion UNR, and so it's time for Marvin Menzies and his staff to put this year in the books and begin looking toward 2018-19.
Before the program can move forward, however, Menzies will have to take inventory of what happened this season, assess the team's strengths and weaknesses, and figure out how best to continue the rebuilding process.
With that in mind, let's take a look at what went right for the Rebels in Menzies' second year at the helm, and conversely, what went wrong:
What went right
When Marvin Menzies took over in May of 2016, the UNLV basketball program was in serious trouble. After Dave Rice was fired in the middle of a third straight underachieving season, most of the Rebels' key players and incoming recruits decided to head elsewhere. Then the administration shuffled through several top choices for the vacant head coaching position before finally hiring Chris Beard, only to lose him to Texas Tech two weeks later. That's the short version.
The point is, UNLV was on the ropes, in a bad way. That offseason, the Rebels bordered on the brink of irrelevancy. But Menzies salvaged a better initial recruiting class than anyone expected, and though the Rebels suffered through an 11-21 season, it laid enough of a foundation to allow the team to take a big step forward under Menzies this year.
Though UNLV probably underperformed its talent level in 2017-18, the overall record improved to 20-13, and one season after going 4-14 in Mountain West play, the Rebels posted an 8-10 mark in conference. From a big-picture standpoint, the program is trending in a good direction. Current players feel comfortable staying at UNLV and recruits feel comfortable committing to UNLV. Once Menzies gets the fan base comfortable about paying to see UNLV, the program will officially be back.
For now, a 20-win season that included some memorable victories — see below — is a big step forward.
UNLV hadn't beaten San Diego State in four years — a string of 11 consecutive defeats — before Shakur Juiston and Brandon McCoy led the Rebels to a dominant 88-78 win at the Thomas & Mack Center on Jan. 27. And after suffering two historic blowout losses at the hands of UNR last year, the Rebels went to Reno on Feb. 7 and earned some revenge with an 86-78 victory.
Those were just a couple of the memorable performances for the Rebels this season. They also destroyed Utah on a neutral court, but in terms of the Mountain West, UNLV showed it is no longer a doormat. The Rebels are capable of competing with the best the conference has to offer. That's something upon which the program can build.
When he was hired, Menzies said he was determined to get the Rebels back to their Runnin' ways. That became a reality in 2017-18, as UNLV averaged 83.4 points per game (13th in the nation) while ranking 19th in adjusted tempo and 20th in possessions per game.
It wasn't a perfect offensive system, but for UNLV "purists" who demand the team play a similar style to the glory days of the 1970's and 80's, this is about as close as you can get in today's game. UNLV played a fast, exciting style of offense, and Menzies will continue recruiting and coaching to that system.
Menzies brought in five freshmen this season, and four of them played key roles while developing and getting better throughout the season. Brandon McCoy was the headliner, and he delivered by winning Mountain West Freshman of the Year honors. Menzies even had McCoy playing a little bit of defense by the time the conference tournament rolled around.
McCoy will likely leave for the NBA this offseason, but the rest of the class appears to be something the Rebels can build around. Forward Tervell Beck played his way into the starting lineup midway through the season and ended up being UNLV's most efficient offensive player (1.119 points per possession). Amauri Hardy showed penetration skills and will assume a starting job in the backcourt next year. Center Mbacke Diong flashed great athleticism and defensive potential and could be in the mix for a starting role next year as well.
The fifth freshman, guard Jay Green, didn't get much playing time, but Beck, Hardy and Diong all improved as the year went on and look like long-term program players. That's a good nucleus.
The top priority when establishing a program is recruiting, and Menzies has been doing an excellent job there. The Rebels will have another talented freshman class arriving next season, headlined by four-star shooting guard Bryce Hamilton and three-star guard Trey Woodbury. Hamilton is rated as the No. 70 high-school player in the country, while Woodbury was a coveted local prospect. Menzies also added 6-foot-8 wing Joel Ntambwe in February.
What went wrong
UNLV scored a lot of points and still finished below .500 in Mountain West play. The reason for that was terrible defense.
The Rebels simply weren't built to be a good defensive team in 2017-18. The backcourt of Jovan Mooring and Jordan Johnson was undersized, and McCoy went through typical freshman growing pains on that end of the floor. In Year 2 of a massive rebuilding process, you can live with that.
Still, UNLV got worse defensively as the season went on, and that's harder to explain. The degeneration culminated in a horrid five-game losing streak to close out the regular season, a run that prompted questions about the coaching staff's ability or desire to match up with modern, 3-point heavy offenses. UNLV should have better defensive personnel in 2018-19, so the performance should get better. If it doesn't, that would be a major red flag.
Menzies preached "Winning time" all season long, but the Rebels never quite got the hang of it. UNLV lost winnable games against Northern Iowa, Arizona, Boise State and New Mexico in the regular season, and they blew a 12-point lead in Thursday's season-ending loss to UNR in the MWC tournament.
The Rebels found a variety of ways to lose close games. Defensive breakdowns, poor shot selection, substitution mishaps, turnovers, timeout allocation — you name it, and UNLV probably found a way to mismanage it and lose a game because of it.
Veteran, winning teams don't make those kinds of mistakes. If Menzies wants to continue pushing the team toward the upper echelon of the Mountain West, eliminating those physical and mental errors will have to be a priority.
It's great to have efficient post scorers, and the Rebels had three of them in McCoy, Juiston and Beck. But in today's game, the single most important factor in winning games is shooting. The team that makes the most 3-point shots will usually win, and UNLV was a bad 3-point shooting team.
For the season, UNLV finished last in the Mountain West in 3-point makes and percentage, and only Johnson (36.8 percent from 3-point range) and Beck (31.3 percent) even finished above 30 percent. That's dreadful shooting, and it's extremely difficult to win like that.
Menzies appears to have targeted shooting with the 2018 recruiting class, as Woodbury and Hamilton both profile as plus shooters down the line. And it wouldn't be a surprise if he added another long-range bomber or two via the juco or grad transfer route before the end of the offseason. When it comes to shooting, you can't have too many 3-point snipers.
In 2017-18, UNLV didn't have enough.