Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau
Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019 | 2 a.m.
UNLV wasn’t supposed to be an outside-shooting team this season. Head coach Marvin Menzies certainly didn’t expect his squad to rely on the 3-point shot. But due to circumstances, the Runnin’ Rebels are now a launch-first team — and it has improved the offense.
The Rebels still aren’t a good shooting team, but through sheer volume they have cobbled together an efficient attack in recent weeks. The key has been Menzies’ embrace of smaller lineups. By down-shifting and playing small, UNLV has been able to create more space inside the arc.
Through the first eight games (when UNLV stuck to a traditional lineup with two true big men), UNLV attempted 20.1 3-point shots per game. Since the loss of Shakur Juiston to a season-ending injury, Menzies has all but scrapped the two-big look and gone small, and the Rebels have responded by shooting 26.5 3-pointers over the last six games.
The 3-point accuracy hasn’t increased significantly, rising from 27.3 percent over the first eight games to 30.8 percent over the last six, but the increased attempts have been crucial in forcing defenses to respect the arc. By drawing opposing defenders farther from the hoop, the Rebels have been able to create wider driving lanes and more open space around the basket.
UNLV’s newfound ability to create 3-point opportunities will be tested today, when the Rebels face off against New Mexico (7 p.m., ESPN2). The Lobos are ranked No. 54 in the nation in limiting opponents’ 3-point attempts.
The main beneficiary of the Rebels’ open approach has been Amauri Hardy. As the team’s best penetrator off the dribble, he has found the new-look offense to be to his liking. Over the last six games, he is averaging 13.5 points and 44.8-percent shooting. He has even made a respectable 34.8 percent of his 3-pointers during that stretch (8-of-23).
And in the last two games — when Menzies really committed to playing small on a full-time basis by starting Hardy as part of a three-guard backcourt — Hardy has shone, racking up 17 assists against just three turnovers. UNLV won both games.
Freshman wing Joel Ntambwe has also thrived in the more spacious offense, scoring 20.1 points over the last six games. His ability to play power forward at 6-foot-8 while also providing spacing as a 3-point threat (40.4 percent for the season) has been the key to the evolving offense.
Even though the Rebels aren’t connecting on a ton of 3’s, the offense is operating at a higher level due to the spike in attempts. For the season, UNLV is averaging 1.012 points per possession, which ranks No. 171 in the nation; but over the last six games, UNLV has bumped it up to 1.081 points per possession, which would put the Rebels in the top 50 over the course of the season.
It may not be Menzies’ preferred method of attack, but given the current roster composition and the injury situation, the coach seems to be adapting on the fly. And the Rebels are responding by letting it fly.