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Analysis:

Analysis: Next UNLV coach walking into win-now situation

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Steve Marcus

UNLV athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois speaks at a news conference at the Mendenhall Center Friday, March 15, 2019. Reed-Francois discussed the firing of UNLV coach Marvin Menzies and the search for his replacement.

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UNLV Athletic Director Discusses Search For New UNLV Basketball Coach

UNLV athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois arrives for a news conference at the Mendenhall Center Friday, March 15, 2019. Reed-Francois discussed the firing of UNLV basketball head coach Marvin Menzies and the search for a new coach. Launch slideshow »

UNLV’s next head basketball coach — whoever it ends up being — will not be walking into the same type of rebuilding project that Marvin Menzies inherited nearly three years ago. The Runnin’ Rebels have been stabilized, the roster has been upgraded, and this has clearly become a win-now situation.

Athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois said there are no preferred candidates yet during her news conference on Friday announcing Menzies’ firing, but that is difficult to believe. Whoever Reed-Francois has lined up to become the next head coach will have to hit the ground running, with the goal of getting UNLV into the NCAA tournament by the end of his second year on the job.

With that baseline for success in mind, here’s a point-by-point punch list for how the next head coach can restore UNLV to the upper echelon of college basketball:

Re-recruit the current roster

Due to Menzies’ familial coaching style, many of the current Rebels are bonded to him. The immediate instinct among those players will be to test the transfer market. The next coach has to turn on the game film immediately after accepting the job and figure out which players he wants to keep. There are talented youngsters up and down the roster, as junior guard Amauri Hardy, junior center Mbacke Diong, sophomore guard Bryce Hamilton and sophomore forward Joel Ntambwe have all shown bright flashes.

The most immediate recruiting attention will have to be focused on senior forward Shakur Juiston. If the new coach wants to retain him, he’ll have to work hard. Juiston is set to graduate in the spring, and after taking a medical redshirt this season, that will make him eligible to transfer and play for another school in 2019-20 without sitting out a year.

The need to assess the current roster is one of the reasons why it was shocking to hear Reed-Francois say the search has yet to begin. The longer Juiston and the rest of the current Rebels are left adrift without a coach, the more likely it is they leave. And that did not work out very well for UNLV during the last coaching change.

Spruce up the schedule

One of the most disappointing aspects of Menzies’ tenure was the non-conference schedule. The Rebels avoided marquee opponents and rarely played good teams, which led to low attendance figures and entire seasons that were played without any hope of earning an at-large NCAA berth.

The next coach will have to change that right away and add some big-name opponents to the schedule, if only to inject some energy into the Thomas & Mack Center. The makings of a decent slate are in place; the Rebels have road games at Cincinnati and BYU set for 2019-20, and there is room to get into a preseason tournament if the new coach wants it.

UNLV is one of the few Mountain West teams — maybe the only one — that can get home games against blue-chip opponents. Menzies didn’t take advantage of that, but the next coach must.

Shear the bottom of the roster

Menzies was loyal to his players to a fault. When he took over a team with 11 empty roster spots in May 2016, he needed recruits to say yes to his program. The players that did — Djordjije Sljivancanin and Ben Coupet, to name a couple — have been rewarded with scholarships for the last three years, even though none of them ever had a chance of playing meaningful minutes at UNLV.

The next coach can't afford to be so loyal. For one thing, he didn’t recruit those players. Secondly, he will be coming in with a mandate to win right away. That means some players at the bottom of the roster will have to be nudged out the door (under the guise of finding them more playing time at another school) in order to upgrade the roster immediately.

In their place, the new coach has to use those newfound scholarship spots to go after players who can make an instant impact. Menzies was reluctant to utilize the grad-transfer market or the traditional sit-and-play transfer pool, opting instead to build long-term around high school recruits. The new coach has to hit those recruits hard. Look at the way Braxton Huggins transformed Fresno State this year, or the effect the Martin twins had at UNR; the Rebels need an injection of talent that can dominate in two years or less.

Be the face of the program

Playing a good schedule is only part of the equation when it comes to restoring excitement to the program. The next coach will have to actively work to win back the trust of the fan base, which has now gone six years without seeing the Rebels play in an NCAA tournament game.

That means the coach will have to become the face of the program. He’ll have to get out in the community and lead a grassroots effort to convince fans that his teams will be worth supporting. It means doing radio shows, TV spots, newspaper sit-downs, charity golf meet-and-greets and tons of other stuff he’d rather not.

It’s a demanding job, and it’s going to take a lot of energy. The next coach has to embrace that aspect of what it means to be the head basketball coach at UNLV right now.

Get off to a good start

Las Vegas embraces winners. Losers get shunned. Teams in the middle get ignored, which is ultimately what doomed Menzies.

The next coach has only to look a mile or so down Tropicana Avenue to see the best example of how it’s done. The Golden Knights won from the very beginning in their inaugural year, and their fan base has stayed loyal and loud for two seasons now.

The new coach will have an opportunity to build similar momentum, but he'll only get one chance to make a first impression. If his Runnin’ Rebels open with a winning streak in Year 1, fans will jump back on the wagon in droves. If they open the year by splitting their first six games, it’s unlikely we’ll see the fans embrace the team.

Recruit the valley

When the next head coach does begin to focus on high school players, that effort has to start locally. Las Vegas produces a ton of Division I talent, and too often those players have escaped the area in recent years — and in some cases, they’ve ended up helping Mountain West rivals defeat UNLV.

In the Class of 2019, UNLV let Clark star Jalen Hill leave for Oklahoma. In 2018, Bishop Gorman wing Jamal Bey bolted for Washington. And Menzies didn’t recruit Findlay Prep, which turns out 5-stars on a yearly basis.

The local Class of 2020 includes Liberty star Julian Strawther and Bishop Gorman studs Isaiah Cottrell and Noah Taitz, and the 2021 prize is Coronado scorer Jaden Hardy (the younger brother of current UNLV player Amauri Hardy). Whoever the Rebels hire will have to jump into that pool quickly, establish relationships, and try to keep some of that talent inside the city limits.

Beat the rivals

The current reality is that it’s tough being a Runnin’ Rebels fan these days. The team has been mediocre for the better part of a decade, and their two biggest rivals take joy in stomping on UNLV like a dry leaf.

San Diego State has eliminated UNLV from the Mountain West tournament in four of the last six years, and the UNR coach Eric Musselman takes glee in running up the score on the Rebels. It’s demoralizing for the fans.

Menzies won 11 conference games this season but went 0-7 against the teams that finished above UNLV in the standings, including an 0-5 mark against SDSU and UNR. The best thing the new coach can do to help his job security will be to start beating those rivals once in a while.

Make the NCAA tournament — soon

For the new hire, the clock will start ticking at his introductory press conference. Menzies got three years to prove himself, and when he failed to come close to earning an NCAA bid he was shown the door. That’s the precedent in place for the next coach.

The good news is that the next coach should have the makings of a good roster in place, and if Reed-Francois handles the search process better than her predecessor, he’ll have plenty of time to add some impact recruits for 2019-20. Mountain West contention is possible in Year 1; the big dance should be the goal in Year 2.

If the next coach follows the blueprint, the Rebels should be able to participate in March Madness sooner rather than later.

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

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