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Otzelberger knows getting Rebels back to NCAA tourney requires forward thinking

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Steve Marcus

T.J. Otzelberger, UNLV’s new men’s basketball head coach pumps his fist during a news conference at the Thomas & Mack Center Thursday, March 28, 2019.

T.J. Otzelberger is a data-driven coach. He can cite, to the percentage point, the efficiency of a possession in which the offensive team gets the ball into the paint, just as he can explain why shooting a 3-pointer is better than throwing the ball into the post. There’s a formula behind it all.

As someone who has taken his teams to the NCAA tournament in two of his first three years as a head coach, Otzelberger also understands that there are formulas for qualifying for March Madness.

The first equation is simple: Win your conference. That’s what Otzelberger’s South Dakota State teams did, earning the Summit League’s automatic bid in 2017 and 2018.

The second formula — earning an at-large bid — is more difficult, especially in a mid-major setting like the Mountain West Conference. It’s not impossible, as the MWC has sent multiple teams to the NCAA tournament in each of the last two years, but it requires some threading of the needle.

At the conference’s media day on Tuesday, Otzelberger shed some light on his plan to get UNLV back to the dance.

The first prong in that plan is, obviously, getting good players. Otzelberger wants to flood his lineup with impact shooters, and that will take a recruiting class or two to accomplish.

The second prong is where the math comes in. The NCAA leans heavily on NET rating when selecting its at-large teams, and the best way to boost your NET is to beat quality opponents; losses to good teams are not seen as especially detrimental.

Otzelberger and his staff try to stay on top of trends in the selection process, and he is mindful of that when crafting his plan for rebuilding the UNLV program.

“We spend a lot of time trying to study the metrics of why certain teams get in and why they don’t,” Otzelberger said. “I think it still comes down to, with the current formula that’s in place with the NET, you’re going to have to play high-quality opponents. Teams seem to be rewarded for Quad 1 and Quad 2 wins, especially when it comes in the postseason.”

So UNLV just has to schedule high-caliber opponents, right? It sounds easy, especially because the Runnin’ Rebels are one of the few teams in the Mountain West that has enough juice to schedule home-and-home series with blue-blood opponents. And yet, in three years under Marvin Menzies, UNLV’s non-conference slate was stuffed with the likes of South Alabama and Pacific, while wins against tournament-caliber teams were non-existent.

Otzelberger wants UNLV to play premier non-conference opponents, starting as soon as possible, but again it’s not that simple in the Mountain West.

At media day, MWC commissioner Craig Thompson said the league is seriously considering expanding from an 18-game league schedule to a 20-game slate. That would leave UNLV with two fewer non-conference games and really force the Rebels to stack the schedule.

UNLV was picked to finish in the bottom half of the Mountain West standings in the preseason poll, so at-large calculations might not come into play this year. But Otzelberger is committed to giving his team every opportunity to earn a postseason berth, and that means following the scheduling formula.

“I’ve talked about how we want to continue to raise the bar, and as we do that with the teams we play in the non-league, we’ll learn more about ourselves and what we need to do to continue to climb as a program,” Otzelberger said.

“We’re not going to shy away from challenges,” he continued. “We’re going to schedule aggressively and we’re going to do that knowing that over time, as we come together as a group and we have character and work ethic and the right players and the right schedule, that we can move our program forward.”

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

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