Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau
Tuesday, June 18, 2019 | 2 a.m.
A week into summer workouts, the UNLV basketball team is operating a bit short-handed. Not only are the Rebels waiting on grad transfers Elijah Mitrou-Long and Vitaliy Shibel to finish their course work at Texas and Arizona State, respectively, the team is also currently working with an empty scholarship spot.
When center Djordjije Sljivancanin announced he was leaving the team, it gave coach T.J. Otzelberger one extra scholarship for the 2019-20 season. So far, Otzelberger has not filled the opening.
At the time of Sljivancanin’s departure, Otzelberger said there were several avenues for adding another player, and his preference was to hold out for an impact contributor who fits the style that UNLV wants to play.
So what are the options for the Rebels’ 13th scholarship? Otzelberger could choose to go in a number of directions:
When UNLV landed a commitment from Class of 2020 wing Nick Blake on Friday, it led to speculation that he could fill the final scholarship spot by reclassifying to 2019 and joining the team immediately. Blake, a 6-foot-7 Las Vegas native, began his high school career at Durango but repeated his junior year when he transferred to Middlebrooks Academy in California for the 2018-19 season.
According to a source, however, UNLV is not considering that option. The plan is for Blake to play out his senior year, graduate in 2020 and join the Rebels next summer.
Another grad transfer?
Otzelberger has already worked the grad-transfer market for a backcourt starter (Mitrou-Long) and a rotational forward (Shibel), so he’s obviously not opposed to one-year stopgaps. The issue is quality; at this point in the summer, there just aren’t that many good, uncommitted grad transfers remaining. Most of the impact players have been scooped up, and what’s left are reclamation projects and diamonds in the rough.
The argument in favor of nabbing another grad transfer is that it would only occupy the scholarship for one season. After that, Otzelberger and his staff would be free to go back on the recruiting trail, looking to upgrade.
Class of 2019
The Rebels didn’t bring in any high school prospects from the Class of 2019, and that’s unlikely to change at this point in the offseason. Otzelberger made a run at shooting guard Caleb Grill, who eventually signed with Iowa State, and then the staff turned its attention to transfers and junior-college products.
Like the grad-transfer market, there just aren’t many prep players remaining who would be worth tying up a scholarship for the next four years. Previous coach Marvin Menzies made that mistake with his first recruiting cycle at UNLV, and it became difficult to dig out from under those wasted scholarships as the years went on. Otzelberger will probably pass on the 2019 high school class.
UNLV already has two sit-out transfers on the roster, as David Jenkins will redshirt the upcoming season after coming over from South Dakota State and Moses Wood will do the same after joining the Rebels from Tulane. If Otzelberger is willing to devote another scholarship to a player who will not suit up next year, the talent pool is relatively deep.
Someone like former Utah wing Donnie Tillman makes sense on paper. The reigning Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year averaged 10.5 points and 5.3 rebounds as a sophomore last year, and he can defend and shoot (36.1 percent from 3-point range). He's also a Findlay Prep grad, so he's got ties to the Las Vegas area.
Guard Devonaire Doutrive averaged 3.3 points in 11.0 minutes per game as a freshman at Arizona, and the former 4-star recruit still has upside. If UNLV wanted to jump in on him, he'd have three years of eligibility remaining after sitting out the 2019-20 season. As it stands now, Doutrive is set to visit San Diego State this week.
Former Washington State forward Marvin Cannon is another intriguing name after posting 7.9 points per game in 21.5 minutes in 2018-19. He'd have two years of eligibility remaining, and he projects as a good shooter going forward after he connected on 33.3 percent from 3-point range and 84.4 percent from the free-throw line last season.
If Otzelberger is serious about keeping the scholarship open through the first semester of the 2019-20 season, he would likely have a chance to snag a quality player as a mid-season transfer. It’s an unorthodox method of team-building but it has worked for UNLV before, as Dave Rice utilized an open scholarship to add Khem Birch in the middle of the 2011-12 season.
Last year, promising players like Jaylen Fisher of TCU, Emmanuel Akot of Arizona and K.J. Feagin of Santa Clara left their teams at mid-season. Akot and Feagin landed at Boise State and San Diego State, respectively, and both are expected to thrive in the Mountain West.
If Otzelberger is willing to exercise some patience and gamble a little, the reward could be a stud player joining the Rebels in January 2021.