June 17, 2019 Currently: 91° | Complete forecast

The Rebels:

Five questions for first UNLV basketball practice

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Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels forward Shakur Juiston (10) dunks during a game against Air Force in the 2018 Mountain West Men’s Basketball Championship at the Thomas & Mack Center Wednesday, March 7, 2018.

Marvin Menzies’ second year at the helm of UNLV basketball had its ups and downs. Several players had standout campaigns, and the Rebels found themselves in third place late in the season (8-5 in Mountain West play) and angling to move up the standings even further before a five-game losing streak brought the team crashing back to earth.

Expectations are higher now for the 2018-19 season. The rebuilding phase is close to being over, as Menzies has brought in three recruiting classes, and his system is now completely up and running. With the first practice of the season set for Friday, now seems like a good time to ask the most important questions surrounding the team:

Which freshmen will make immediate impacts?

UNLV got big production from its freshmen last season, led by top scorer Brandon McCoy (16.9 points, 10.3 rebounds per game). It’s unlikely any of this year’s newcomers will duplicate McCoy’s numbers, but there are a handful of candidates for regular playing time.

Shooting guard Bryce Hamilton comes with a polished skill set and should see starter’s minutes right away. His shooting/scoring touch could get him into double figures on a nightly basis, and his ball-handling ability will fill a need on the roster.

On the wings, Trey Woodbury and Joel Ntambwe will have to earn minutes in different ways. If Woodbury shoots the ball as expected, he’ll play; if Ntambwe can handle the ball like a guard and defend, he’ll see minutes in several different lineups.

The incoming 2018 freshman class didn’t have a true superstar headliner with the hype level of McCoy — 4-star Hamilton was the top recruit — but it’s a group that should see the court early and grow together over the next few years.

Who are the shooters?

As touched on above, the Rebels are in need of outside shooters. The team made just 33.4 percent of its 3-pointers last season, and the Rebels finished dead last in the Mountain West in made 3s. That made UNLV easy to game-plan against.

The bad news is that the Rebels lost their best outside shooter to graduation, as Johnson (38.9 percent) is gone. The good news is that his replacement, senior point guard Noah Robotham, is a career 38.5-percent shooter over 88 career college games. The potentially good news is that Hamilton and especially Woodbury also project to be plus shooters, though it’s too early to tell whether they can be counted on right away.

Shooting is scarce throughout the rest of the roster. Sophomore guard Amauri Hardy is expected to be a big part of the rotation, but he shot 29.4 percent from long distance last year. Senior swing man Kris Clyburn made 32.7 percent. Sophomore forward Tervell Beck showed promising form by making 36.0 percent, but it was a small sample size (9-of-25).

If Robotham, Hamilton, Woodbury and Beck all meet or exceed expectations, the Rebels could be a decent shooting team. But don’t expect them to compete with the elite shooting teams in the Mountain West.

Will the team defend?

Defense was optional last season, and that proved to be the Rebels’ downfall. Once opponents figured out how to exploit McCoy’s interior defense, it produced an assembly line of layups and the Rebels were powerless to stop it.

Rim protection shouldn’t be as much of an issue this season. While the Rebels lose McCoy’s offensive production, sophomore center Mbacke Diong and junior center Cheickna Dembele are both superior defensive players. And if athletic freshman big man Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua forces his way onto the court, he’ll block his share of shots, too.

That leaves the perimeter defense as the bigger question mark. Last year, the Rebels were severely undersized in the backcourt, with Johnson (5-foot-9) and Jovan Mooring (6-foot-2) usually playing at a significant length disadvantage. Robotham (6-foot-1) is a little longer than Johnson and has a solid defensive reputation, but Hamilton (6-foot-4) is a freshman who will need time to learn how to defend.

The pieces are in place for UNLV to improve defensively. A giant step forward in development by Diong would be the fastest route to becoming a good defensive team, but incremental upgrades throughout the rotation could lead to better numbers across the board by the end of the year.

Can Shakur Juiston be the man?

Juiston came to UNLV as the reigning Junior College National Player of the Year and more than lived up to that standard last year, when he averaged a double-double (14.6 points and 10.0 rebounds per game, both second on the team). But that was with McCoy shouldering the load on offense and drawing most of the opponents’ attention in the post.

Juiston figures to take on more responsibility this season, as the Rebels lean on their senior big man at both ends of the floor. He was super-efficient as a junior, shooting 63.9 percent from the field and posting an offensive box plus/minus rating of +3.2 (second on the team to Jordan Johnson’s +4.0). If he can maintain anything near that level of efficiency while upping his field-goal attempts from last year’s 10.3 per game to somewhere in the neighborhood of 12.0 or so, he’ll be the pillar of the offense.

Defensively, Juiston was good on the glass and decent everywhere else. But with stronger rim protection around him, his instincts and timing should become more of an asset.

Can the Rebels compete with the Mountain West elite?

The Mountain West appears to be a two-team race, with UNR and San Diego State looking down at the rest of the conference from the top tier. Both squads are NCAA-tournament tested, and they return a bunch of talented players who chose another year in college over the enticement of the NBA Draft. Roster-wise, it’s difficult to envision UNLV competing with either team.

After that, however, the second tier doesn’t seem so daunting. New Mexico surprised last year, and Boise State is well-coached, but neither team is beyond UNLV in terms of talent level. The Rebels do have to prove that they can win conference games — Marvin Menzies won a bushel of WAC conference titles at New Mexico State, but the Rebels went a disappointing 8-10 in the Mountain West last year, including losing their final five league games.

UNLV should do better than .500 in conference play this season. It might not be enough to contend for the league title, and an NCAA tournament berth is unlikely, but Menzies has built a good recruiting base and the program is trending upward. True Mountain West contention might be as close as a year away.

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

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