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Otzelberger expects current Rebels to decide soon: ‘We’re close’

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Steve Marcus

T.J. Otzelberger, UNLV’s new men’s basketball head coach listens to a question during a news conference at the Thomas & Mack Center Thursday, March 28, 2019.

The Rebel Room

TJO-cast

Ray Brewer, Mike Grimala and Case Keefer discuss UNLV's hire of T.J. Otzelberger. What are the expectations? What players can he realistically keep? Will he jump to another job at the first sign of success? All those topics and more are covered.

It’s been almost two weeks since T.J. Otzelberger was hired as UNLV’s head basketball coach, and Rebels fans are getting a little antsy. Seven current UNLV players are still in the transfer portal, no assistant coaches have been announced and the calendar is in the middle of an NCAA-mandated recruiting dead period.

The lack of movement may have some outside the program on edge, but one man who isn’t panicking is Otzelberger himself. While strolling the sideline at the UNLV football spring showcase on Saturday, Otzelberger exuded calm and seemed assured that things will begin coming together soon.

The 41-year-old said he has enjoyed his time on the job so far and reiterated that his top priority remains keeping the current players in the program.

“It’s been great,” Otzelberger said. “It’s an opportunity to learn and listen with our players and our program. I said in the press conference and I mean it, it’s our job to re-recruit those guys and that’s by investing time and trust and building relationships, and that’s what we’ve set out to do. So the bulk of my time, as much as everything outside our program is important, that’s where my focus has been over that first week.”

Otzelberger found enough time last week to go outside the program to land a commitment from junior-college prospect Jonah Antonio, and his approach to retaining the current Rebels is much the same as his approach to Antonio’s recruitment. The coach said his pitch is a mix of earning the players’ trust on a personal level and also selling them on his high-scoring offensive style.

“I think a lot of it comes down to that personal side, because players want to play for a coach that’s invested in them, that’s invested in their development,” he said. “We’re going to play a fun brand of basketball. That’s my background. We’re going to get out and it’s going to be free-flowing and very offensive-minded in transition and the open court. So I know those guys will come to love that part of it, but I think first it’s you’ve got to let them know you care before they’re going to take that next step with you.”

If Otzelberger can convince current Rebels such as guards Amauri Hardy and Bryce Hamilton and forwards Mbacke Diong and Joel Ntambwe to return, UNLV could be set up for a competitive 2019-20 season. If not, Otzelberger could have as many as seven more scholarships to fill over the spring and summer. Even for an accomplished recruiter like Otzelberger that would be quite a task.

The current recruiting dead period runs until April 11; that opens a three-day "evaluation period" window, during which coaches are allowed to travel and meet with recruits off-campus. The spring signing period begins April 17.

Aside from re-recruiting the current players, Otzelberger said the other top priorities since taking the job have been assembling his staff and getting out in the community. While he works on those fronts, Otzelberger continues to build relationships with the current players.

While receiving a commitment or two from players already on the team would ease some fans’ concerns, Otzelberger couldn’t offer a timeline for when that might happen. But he seemed confident that things will start to fall into place in the near future.

“I think we’re close to guys making those commitments,” Otzelberger said. “I’ve just got to be in their corner and be there to talk through things and hopefully in the not-too-distant future we’ll have more clarity in terms of who’s all staying.”

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

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