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Rebels basketball:

Amauri Hardy on his decision to stay at UNLV, his leadership role and March Madness expectations

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Steve Marcus

UNLV’s Amauri Hardy takes a shot during the first basketball practice of the 2018-19 season at Mendenhall Center, Friday, Sept. 28, 2018.

Amauri Hardy is on the floor at the Mendenhall Center, going through a solo workout as his father watches from the stands. He is launching jump shot after jump shot, working up a sweat as he prepares for the upcoming season at UNLV.

Rebels head coach T.J. Otzelberger has tasked each of his players with making 150 shots per day from behind the arc, but Hardy insists on going further. He sinks his required 150 and then keeps shooting until he makes 400 more.

For a junior who has been through more offseason turmoil than most, the gym possesses a certain comfort factor. When he’s on the practice court honing his shooting mechanics, he is in control.

Ask Hardy how he spent his offseason — one of the most eventful in UNLV basketball history — and he has a reasonable if understated answer.

“Working out, for the most part,” Hardy says. “I’m always here.”

It makes perfect sense.

Hardy is no stranger to coaching changes and the way they can uproot an entire life. As a senior in high school he had committed to play his college ball at Oklahoma State, and he was all in. His family even planned to relocate to Stillwater from Michigan. And then Cowboys coach Brad Underwood left for Illinois, and Hardy was left looking for a new school.

He ended up at UNLV as part of Marvin Menzies’ heralded 2017 recruiting class, along with Brandon McCoy and Shakur Juiston. It was supposed to lead to the rebirth of Runnin’ Rebels basketball, but two years later Menzies was fired and Hardy was once again in the middle of a coaching change.

He was also faced with a similar decision: Stay or go?

Hardy tested his options. He entered his name into the NCAA transfer portal on March 26, and for two weeks his status was among the most hotly debated topics among Rebels fans. After a breakout sophomore campaign that saw him average 13.1 points and 3.5 assists, they knew how important Hardy could be to an incoming coach.

A number of factors weighed on Hardy’s mind.

“When it all went down, I just took a step back and looked at the bigger picture,” Hardy says. “I’ve got my family out here, so that was a big thing for me. And just to see who stays and who goes, that also played a huge determining factor in whether I stayed.”

When it came time to make a decision, Hardy felt he had unfinished business at UNLV. And once he got to know the new coach, his mind was made up.

On April 9, he announced his intention to stay with the Rebels.

“I kind of wanted to finish what I started,” he says. “I wanted to make it work here. I enjoy being around the guys. When I talked to coach T.J., I felt like he had a great plan not just for me, but for this team. And how he envisioned playing — the way he talks about spacing and his offensive concepts, I think that will work really well with my game and make it a lot easier for me to have a good season. I think it all worked out for the best.”

The 2018-19 season was a key developmental year for Hardy. He began the season as a reserve, but earned a starting job midway through the schedule and proved he can be an impact player. Now, the next step will be producing big numbers on the court while assuming a bigger leadership role.

Hardy is taking it upon himself to get to know his new teammates. He is using the summer to learn about their backgrounds, their experiences and what makes them tick on and off the court.

As one of the Rebels who chose to stick it out through the upheaval, he feels a responsibility to lead the program.

“I’m probably one of the longest tenured guys here, besides Cheickna [Dembele],” Hardy says. “I want to see winning at this program. I’m a leader of this team, and for me to be a leader of this team I want to be an “every day” guy. I want to work on my game and influence others to get better. More importantly, go out there and give my all to this city. There’s some passionate fans here and they deserve it.”

Hardy talks about setting the tone with his actions. Making 400 extra shots on a daily basis is just one example of how he’s hoping to lead.

Bringing a positive attitude to the gym every day is another aspect of his burgeoning leadership style. After just a couple of weeks of on-court work with Otzelberger, Hardy is already singing the coach’s praises and buying into the system.

With Otzelberger’s spread offense, Hardy should have no trouble dancing past his defender for his share of layups and 3-pointers.

“I think spacing is really huge,” he says. “It allows us guards to get in the gaps and allows us to make plays. I feel the court will open up a lot more. A lot more 3’s. It allows a person like me to play my game and makes it easier for me.”

That’s why Hardy is in the gym on a Tuesday afternoon, putting up 3-pointers (and hitting them at a 70-percent clip). He believes in the way the Rebels are going to play, and he thinks the team can be better than people think, sooner than people think.

While most outside observers have Otzelberger’s first season pegged as a transition year, with 2020-21 as the real target for a postseason berth, Hardy doesn’t plan on waiting around.

If he runs the offense well enough and leads his teammates well enough and makes enough 3-pointers, he sees big things for UNLV — this season.

“I always take it year by year,” Hardy says. “I’m not thinking about Year 2 for coach T.J. or my senior year. I want to get it done now. I’m not looking down the road. We should have a winning season and I think everyone should think that way, not about the next year to come, or, ‘What if this happens?’ We’ve got right now.

“Our identity, the vibe of this team, we see ourselves playing in March Madness. That’s the vibe. Nothing less. We aren’t going to set the bar low. We all want to play in March Madness. We all want to win and we expect to have a big season.”

The fans wanted him to stay; the new coaching staff wanted him to stay; his teammates wanted him to stay.

And he’s still here, in the gym. In his words, “always here.”

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

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