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UNLV BASKETBALL:

First-year Rebel Joel Ntambwe ignoring ‘freshman wall’

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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.

The Rebel Room

Junk defenses

The Rebels have lost four of their last five games, but it's a mostly positive version of the Rebel Room on this episode. Mike Grimala, Ray Brewer and Case Keefer discuss Marvin Menzies' decision to switch back exclusively to a man-to-man defense and how long of a run is realistic to expect UNLV to make in the conference tournament.

Is there such a thing as the “freshman wall?” Joel Ntambwe doesn’t think so.

The first-year Runnin’ Rebel has started every game this season, logging 24.3 minutes per contest, but Ntambwe says he is feeling fresh as UNLV heads into the final stretch.

“I feel great,” Ntambwe said. “Just got to keep taking care of my body.”

Ntambwe has emerged as a key contributor for the Rebels, averaging 12.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while making 42.2 percent of his 3-pointers. He has shouldered an even greater load in conference play, increasing his minutes to 26.5 per game and posting 14.4 points and 5.6 rebounds while hitting 41.2 percent from 3-point range.

Over the last three weeks, the numbers have been less consistent. Ntambwe has been held to single-digit scoring in three of the last six games, which wouldn’t be such a cause for concern if he hadn’t scored in double figures in each of the 10 previous games.

In the Rebels’ win at Boise State on Feb. 6, Ntambwe played just seven minutes and attempted only three shots, finishing with three points. He bounced back somewhat by scoring 11 points in 24 minutes against Fresno State on Saturday, but UNLV needs more out of him on the offensive end.

Ntambwe said his lull in production has nothing to do with the freshman wall.

“I’ve still got the same energy,” Ntambwe said. “I’m not even hitting the wall. The last couple games I’ve been struggling, things haven’t been going well for us, but as long as we’re winning, I’m cool.”

For the Rebels, the priority will be doing everything possible to help Ntambwe get back to producing at a high level for the final seven games of the season — and the Mountain West tournament.

Head coach Marvin Menzies is not averse to playing his freshmen for extended minutes, as he proved last year by starting Brandon McCoy in every game. Menzies believes that the freshman wall is as much about mental fatigue as it is a physical plateau.

Menzies said UNLV has the infrastructure in place to help Ntambwe and the rest of the team’s freshmen through the final leg of the season.

“It’s tough,” Menzies said. “Most freshmen who don’t have the experience of the routine and the demands that we put on college student-athletes, they hit a wall. As they say, that proverbial wall. But when you are about the right things and your head is in the right place and you’re not a selfish person, you can typically power through those walls with the support of teammates and coaches.”

Sophomore guard Amauri Hardy played through the wall last year, averaging 18.9 minutes per game in his first season at UNLV. Hardy said he would advise Ntambwe to keep a positive attitude and focus on long-term goals.

“I would say just stay true to the grind,” Hardy said. “Stay positive. You don’t want to become a negative person because that affects the team. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”

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

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