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Mountain West slate offers first real test of Menzies’ long-term plan for Rebels

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Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels head coach Marvin Menzies celebrates a successful free throw during a game against the Cincinnati Bearcats at the Thomas & Mack Center Saturday Dec. 1, 2018.

Marvin Menzies was hired by UNLV to build the Runnin’ Rebels into a Mountain West powerhouse. When league play begins on Wednesday vs. Colorado State (7:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network), his long-term plan will finally be put to the test.

In his nine seasons as head coach at New Mexico State, Menzies led the Aggies to three regular-season WAC championships, and the team won the conference tournament five times (including four in a row from 2012-2015). By the time he interviewed at UNLV in the spring of 2016, he had run up a 103-37 record in-conference.

That’s what made Menzies a finalist for the UNLV job. There were no signature wins against major-conference opponents on his resume and no Cinderella runs through the NCAA tournament (Menzies is 0-5 in the big dance). The Rebels had suffered through consecutive losing seasons in the Mountain West under Dave Rice (who was fired after starting league play 0-3 in 2015-16), and the school’s decision-makers wanted someone who could build a long-term conference juggernaut.

Now it’s time to find out if Menzies’ rebuilding effort is on schedule. Though Menzies is in his third year leading the Rebels (37-40, 12-24 MWC), this is the first season it has felt fair to judge him by his Mountain West record. In his first season, the roster was thrown together at the last minute (due to no fault of the coach, who was hired late in the process) and finished last in the Mountain West with a 4-14 record. Last year, the team was built around holdovers from Year 1 and one-year stopgaps such as Brandon McCoy and Jordan Johnson, limiting the predictive value of that team’s 8-10 mark.

Starting on Wednesday, however, the results of every league contest will be scrutinized as part of the bigger picture. Menzies has the foundation of his long-term roster in place: Sophomores Amauri Hardy, Mbacke Diong and Tervell Beck and freshmen Bryce Hamilton, Joel Ntambwe, Trey Woodbury and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua will form the core of the team for the next two-plus years.

Menzies said collecting talent is the first step toward building a team that can contend in the Mountain West (and beyond) year after year.

"Until we build the program back to where I'd like it to be and we're competing for deep runs into the NCAA tournament, one of our stepping-stone goals is to compete in the upper echelon of the conference," Menzies said. "You have to make sure the talent you're bringing in can do that. You have to get the best talent you can get, but also guys that can be here to sustain that type of progress."

On an individual basis, all of the young core players have flashed enough promise to generate some hope for the future, but that group is a little on the young side to be expected to contend in the Mountain West this season (especially without senior forward Shakur Juiston, who will miss the rest of the season due to a knee injury). Still, their ability to play in this league should be evident on a nightly basis. If they look overmatched and struggle to post even a .500 record, it gets difficult to imagine a bright future ahead — the incoming 2019 recruiting class so far features a pair of 3-star guards, and any impact recruits in 2020 would likely be two (or more likely three) years away from making a difference.

That means Menzies’ future is likely tied to the current roster. If the core in place now isn’t good enough to eventually turn things around and make UNLV into a Mountain West contender — starting Wednesday against a sub-par Colorado State team — Menzies probably won’t be in charge of the next rebuilding process.

Can UNLV do enough over the next 18 games to validate Menzies' long-term vision? The coach said it will come down to how well the Rebels execute — and just how plain good they are.

"Conference games have a larger sample size of footage to evaluate, so nobody really sneaks up on anybody," Menzies said. "Everybody kind of knows who you are and who you have. You may be able to steal a possession here and there, but for the most part you have to earn it."

 

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

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