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Analysis: Could ETSU coach Steve Forbes ‘win now’ at UNLV?

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John Minchillo / Assocaited Press

East Tennessee State head coach Steve Forbes works the bench in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Xavier, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, in Cincinnati. Xavier won 68-66.

There’s an old trope in sports that when you fire a coach, you replace him with his total opposite. In the NFL, you ship out an offensive-minded head coach and bring in a defensive head coach. In baseball, you replace a nail-spitter with a “player’s manager.” And so on.

If Desiree Reed-Francois subscribes to that theory, might UNLV’s next head coach be the opposite of Marvin Menzies?

Considering what Steve Forbes has done at East Tennessee State over the last four years, he might fit that profile better than any other available candidate. Whereas Menzies wanted to rebuild the UNLV program slowly and methodically, from the ground up, Forbes would set a goal of winning big in Year 1 by any means necessary.

Instead of recruiting high-school players and preaching player development, Forbes would use his junior-college connections to bring in experienced transfers to fill out the roster and compete right away. It’s a completely different approach than the one Menzies implemented for the last three years, but Forbes has made it work for him at ETSU.

Forbes, who turned 54 this week, comes from a deep juco background. The first nine years of his career were spent at the juco level as an assistant and head coach, with the most relevant stretch coming when he was named head coach at Barton CC (Great Bend, Kan.) in 1995.

Coaching in the same conference that later produced current UNLV player (for now) Shakur Juiston, Forbes ran up a 68-28 record over three years and churned out a ton of future Division-I signees. He then moved to the Division I level as an assistant at Louisiana Tech, Illinois State and Texas A&M before accepting a job to be part of Bruce Pearl’s staff at Tennessee.

That Tennessee stint ended in disaster, with recruiting violations and Forbes getting caught lying to NCAA investigators in an effort to cover Pearl’s tracks. The entire staff was fired, and for his part in the scandal Forbes was given a one-year show-cause by the NCAA.

Effectively banned from the NCAA, Forbes went back to his juco roots by accepting the head coaching position at Northwest Florida State, an NJCAA school in Niceville, Fla. He dominated the competition for two years (62-6 record) and sent five of his players on to Division I, then jumped back to DI himself as an assistant at Wichita State under Gregg Marshall.

During Forbes’s two years at Wichita State, the Shockers went 65-5 and won three NCAA tournament games. That run of success earned him his first head coaching job at the D-I level, as East Tennessee State hired him to turn around a program that had stalled in the middle of the Southern Conference.

In the four years before Forbes’s arrival, ETSU had gone 62-65 overall and 36-36 in league play. The Buccaneers didn’t finish higher than fourth in the conference standings during that stretch. Forbes came in an completely rebuilt the team in Year 1, bringing in two grad transfers and a juco prospect to form the core of the squad. With that trio serving as the Bucs’ top three scorers, ETSU went 24-12 (14-4 SC) and made it to the conference championship game.

Forbes has used a similar formula in each of the last three seasons and the results have been fantastic: three more Southern Conference championship games, one win, and one trip to the NCAA tournament. Over his four-year tenure, Forbes has posted a record of 100-39, with a 55-17 mark in league play.

It happened that fast at East Tennessee State. Could Forbes turn around the UNLV program just as quickly?

It’s a trap

Forbes is a defensive-minded coach and he believes in pressuring the opponent in half-court situations. In his four-guard system, that means a lot of trapping and forcing ball-handlers to make difficult, risky passes across the court. That’s when Forbes’s athletic defenders are at their best, swooping in for deflections and steals.

In 2018-19, the East Tennessee State defense finished No. 46 in the nation in turnover rate (18.1 percent). That would have made the Buccaneers No. 1 in the Mountain West by a wide margin, as Fresno State finished 118th nationally with a turnover rate of 16.8 percent.

That level of pressure appears to be something Forbes can sustain. In 2017-18, his ETSU squad was No. 51 in turnover rate; the year before that, they were 28th in the nation. His teams consistently create turnovers:

The Buccaneers have also prioritized keeping the ball out of the paint. While some coaches, such as Buffalo’s Nate Oats, prefer to contest all jump shots, Forbes would rather have his defenders back off and cut down on driving lanes when prudent. That leads to open jumpers; 39.7 percent of all jump shots against ETSU this season were unguarded, according to Synergy Sports data, and opposing teams scored 1.270 points per possession on those plays, which put ETSU in the bottom 50 of jump-shot defense.

The benefit of Forbes’s system is that it limits close-range shots around the rim. Only 31.4 percent of opponents’ shots came within three feet of the rim this season, which ranked ETSU in the top 100 nationally. The year before, the Bucs were No. 53 (29.7 percent).

For context, UNLV was No. 191 in that category in 2018-19, allowing 33.6 percent of shots to come around the rim. Buffalo was No. 188 (33.6 percent) and Mike Rhoades-coached VCU was No. 268 (35.4 percent). Despite playing four true guards and only one post player, East Tennessee State defends the bucket.

Forbes likes to push the ball in transition, which UNLV fans must be happy to hear. The Buccaneers weren’t as prolific as Buffalo in the open court, but they ran a fair amount (16.7 percent of possessions) and scored efficiently when they did attack on the break (1.144 points per possession, No. 27 in the nation).

Considering how many perimeter players were on the floor, ETSU did not spread the court very much. Forbes has not bought into the 3-point era, as his teams have been relatively conservative when it comes to launching long-range shots. During his four-year tenure, his 3-pointers have accounted for between 35.2 percent and 36.7 percent of the Buccaneers’ shot attempts.

In 2018-19, long 2-point jumpers accounted for 24.7 percent of ETSU’s shot attempts. It’s not an analytics-friendly attack, which is how the Bucs ended up with the No. 111 half-court offense in terms of points per possession (0.910).

It’s an intense style of play that demands a lot of energy. That’s why Forbes typically plays a deep rotation, shuttling in substitutes to execute his high-pressure trapping defense and transition offense. It’s a system that works because Forbes can build deep rosters due to his ability to tap into all avenues of player acquisition.

Have it your way

When you read up on Forbes, you come across a quote he uses time and time again to describe his recruiting philosophy: “Recruit Burger King All-Americans to kick McDonald’s All-American butt.”

The meaning is obvious. Blue-chippers and 5-stars are great, but Forbes prefers players who have been disrespected by the rankings sites and passed over by the blue-blood programs. Guys who have been knocked down a peg and paid their dues at a tiny junior college in Kansas or Texas or Florida. One-time prospects who have had a couple years to mature, physically and emotionally.

Forbes collects those players and uses them to build deep, competitive rosters that fight for 40 minutes.

Before his first year at ETSU he brought in guards Ge’Lawn Guyn (grad transfer), T.J. Cromer (juco) and Deuce Bello (grad transfer), and they combined to average 42.7 points, 10.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists while leading the Bucs to a 24-12 record (14-4 SC) and a spot in the league championship game. It was a stark turnaround from the previous season (16-14, 8-10 SC) and set the blueprint for the way Forbes wanted to build his rosters.

The following year, Forbes built around Cromer and brought in grad transfer Tevin Glass (who had played under Forbes at Northwest Florida State and Wichita State) and Indiana transfer Hanner Mosquera-Perea, a former top-50 recruit out of high school. With contributions from two other returning players — guards Desonta Bradford and A.J. Merriweather — Forbes led that team to the Southern Conference championship and a spot in the NCAA tournament.

This season, Forbes reloaded by bringing in another former Northwest Florida State prospect, guard Tray Boyd. Rated as the No. 35 juco prospect in the nation, Boyd stepped in and immediately led the Bucs in scoring (12.2 points per game). The team’s second-leading scorer was forward Jeromy Rodriguez, yet another Northwest Florida State recruit (and the No. 16 juco prospect) who sat out the 2017-18 season due to injury. Rodriguez posted 11.2 points and 10.9 rebounds per game. Third-leading scorer Patrick Good was a transfer from Appalachian State who sat out the 2017-18 season as a redshirt; as a sophomore this season, he scored 10.4 points while making 39.0 percent of his 3-pointers. Junior guard Isaiah Tisdale (8.8 points, 3.0 assists) was a junior college All-American and the No. 15 juco recruit.

And the roster goes on like that. Of the team’s top 10 in minutes played, only three were recruited to ETSU out of high school. Five were juco products and two were college transfers. And that’s fine with Forbes. He even prefers it that way. He gets them at their hungriest and plugs them into his system as immediate difference-makers.

If any UNLV fans are skeptical about whether such a style could work in the Mountain West, they’d need only to look north, where UNR coach Eric Musselman has built the Wolf Pack into a mid-major dynasty by employing a similar philosophy.

Pearl connections

Forbes doesn’t come without baggage. As noted above, he ran afoul of the NCAA in a big way, and though he served his punishment, it’s hard to remove that from the equation going forward.

To most observers on the outside, Forbes’s role in the scandal was minimal. His head coach hosted a high school recruit at a barbeque before the recruit’s senior year, which is against the rules — only on-campus contact was permitted at that time. When photos surfaced of the player at Pearl’s house, NCAA investigators asked Forbes if he knew anything about it. He claimed he didn’t, the NCAA had proof otherwise and that was the end of Pearl and his staff at Tennessee.

Most coverage seems to take it easy on Forbes; he was protecting his head coach over a not-so-serious infraction. But the cover-up is always worse than the crime, and now Desiree Reed-Francois will have to take that into account if she considers Forbes for the UNLV job.

Bottom line

If UNLV wants a quick-fix artist, Forbes shoots to the top of the list. Marvin Menzies took over a team with three returning scholarship players in 2016 and considered it a lost year; Forbes would be delighted to have that much roster freedom and would undoubtedly stock up on a bunch of highly-ranked jucos and grad transfers, ready and raring to fight it out for a Mountain West title with his collection of Burger King All-Americans.

As per a contract extension signed last offseason, Forbes is set to make $650,000 per year through the 2022-23 season. If UNLV wants to pry him away from East Tennessee State the Rebels would have to pay a $500,000 buyout. Those terms are reasonable and appear to be well within UNLV’s budget for the next coach.

After qualifying for the CIT, East Tennessee State’s season came to an end with a loss to Green Bay on Wednesday. So if Forbes is a target of the UNLV coaching search, there should be no delay in talking to him. If Reed-Francois wants a coach who can load up the roster with Shakur Juiston-types and go to battle in 2019-20, she will reach out to Forbes.

For the contingent of Rebels fans (and administrators) who tired of Menzies’s slow rebuilding process, Forbes would satisfy the urge to try and win now.

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

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