Thursday, June 13, 2019 | 2 a.m.
T.J. Otzelberger hasn’t coached a game at UNLV yet—in fact, the Rebels only held their first on-court summer workout on June 10—but the hard work of building the program back into a contender began the minute he accepted the job.
During the past two months, Otzelberger has worked behind the scenes to lay the foundation. His top priorities, as he said in his introductory press conference (and many times since), were re-recruiting the current Rebels players and reconnecting the UNLV program with the Las Vegas community. He has checked both boxes; the coach convinced several key returnees to stay at UNLV, and he undertook a weeks-long meet-and-greet blitz to ingratiate himself to the fanbase.
His most important work has been less-publicized, however. Out of sight of the fans and media, Otzelberger and his coaching staff have canvassed the city’s high school gyms in an effort to rejuvenate a local recruiting pipeline that crumbled under the previous regime.
Coronado coach Jeff Kaufman is shepherding a handful of Division I prospects, including three who have been offered scholarships by UNLV. Kaufman said the new staff has gone above and beyond when it comes to building relationships with local players and coaches. He said Otzelberger and assistant coach Kevin Kruger, in particular, have been regulars in the Coronado gym during the past two months, and Kaufman takes that as a good sign for UNLV’s chances with his players.
“It’s a whole different world,” Kaufman said. “I have nothing bad to say about the last group (former UNLV coach Marvin Menzies). Menzies was Menzies. But T.J. has been here as many times as he could be here in his first months. Kruger has been here I don’t even know how many times. I talked to Kruger twice today. They call, they text. T.J. called me the other night; it was 11 p.m. and he was just checking in. As a high school coach who’s been in Las Vegas his whole life, it really makes you want to help them and really want to get kids to UNLV because you understand the kids are going to be successful.”
Getting Las Vegas kids to UNLV proved difficult for Menzies. During his three years at the helm, the lone local recruit to commit to the Rebels as a scholarship player was Class of 2018 guard Trey Woodbury (he has since transferred). Otzelberger knows he has to do much better than that if he hopes to win at UNLV.
In the Class of 2020, rankings site 247Sports lists eight Las Vegas recruits in the top 300 nationally. In the Class of 2021, it lists seven Vegas kids in the top 100. If Otzelberger can successfully tap into that, the Rebels could be back sooner than expected.
All 10 of the players Otzelberger has offered in the Class of 2020 so far are locals. “We’ve only offered kids in the Las Vegas area,” Otzelberger said. “At some point we’re going to need to move [beyond the area], but we want to make sure those kids know first and foremost that we want them to be here, and we were going to make sure our actions indicated that.”
Otzelberger has made his presence known at the Coronado, Bishop Gorman, Clark and other gyms across the Valley. He also assembled a Vegas-centric coaching staff that includes Kruger (a former Rebel) and DeMarlo Slocum (a born-and-raised native who was head coach of the Las Vegas Prospects AAU team once upon a time).
But even before his staff was in place, Otzelberger was on the ground making connections. “T.J. had been in town for three days and he was in my office,” Kaufman said. “We were looking at my computer, and he told me his strategy. He said from the beginning he’s going to go after the local guys, go after the 2020 guys he needs first.”
A five-star prospect like Trinity International point guard Daishen Nix (No. 13 nationally in the Class of 2020) is probably beyond the Rebels’ reach at this point, but Otzelberger is convinced he can build around impact players from the local talent pool.
One to watch in 2020 is three-star forward Jhaylon Martinez. The Coronado product averaged 12.7 points and 8.3 rebounds last year, and at 6-foot-11 he’s a capable 3-point shooter. Otzelberger was quick to offer, and Martinez is set to take an official visit to UNLV on June 15.
The Rebels are also after three-star swingman Mwani Wilkinson (Bishop Gorman), three-star guard Donovan Yap (Arbor View) and three-star guard Nick Blake (a Vegas native playing his high-school ball at Middlebrooks Academy in California), all from the Class of 2020.
Otzelberger said the 2020 recruits will form the nucleus of his Runnin’ Rebels. “The 2020 class is huge,” he said. “That’s going to be the foundation, the backbone of our program as we move forward. I think we’ve really tried to emphasize the importance of local kids, making sure we offer scholarships to our top local talent. We see that class as a pivotal one for us to get a really strong group and develop those guys.”
Simply by showing up on a daily basis and putting in the work, Otzelberger is starting to change that perception. “You have a local community that wants these kids to be part of the [UNLV] team, and it’s time to take advantage of it,” Kaufman said. “When it comes to kids like Martinez, Yap, [Noah] Taitz, all those kids, I certainly think that they’re in the ballgame. And I think that with some of the younger kids—the Jaden Hardys of the world, PopPop Isaacs, Zaon Collins, Frankie Collins, Anthony Swift—I think once their friends start jumping in, that will help.
“Unfortunately, the last staff wasn’t focused on getting the local kids, so you don’t just lose the local kids that are eligible to play in college, you lose the kids that are coming through the pipeline behind them,” Kaufman continued. “I think there’s definitely time to get some of these 2020 kids if T.J. wants them.”
With team workouts underway and preseason practices just around the corner after that, Otzelberger’s work is bound to be more visible now. But if the Rebels are going to be great again, it will likely be because of his two months of grinding.
“I think that’s what it comes down to,” Otzelberger said. “Obviously there’s a lot of premier high school programs in Las Vegas right now, so we’ve tried to do a great job of getting out and making those connections, working hard, working the phones and building those relationships.”
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.