The eight-month layoff in-between the last UNLV Runnin’ Rebels basketball game and the first one of this new season may have been brutal for fans.
But none have been more eager for another bite at the apple than UNLV head coach TJ Otzelberger.
Enters with new team looking to find footing by building off what last year’s team did
Last season, the Rebels posted a record of 17-15 with a 12-6 Mountain West conference record.
However, the team did secure key road victories at San Diego State and New Mexico
“He’s a very good basketball coach and he’s got a high degree of integrity and he’s going to recruit the people that fit his style well,” Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger said. “No one could’ve predicted a first year like he had there.
“I think he’s definitely on the right track if not considered to be ahead. It’s hard to go into a program and establish what he did in year one and finish tied for second in the league, that’s pretty impressive.”
Kruger coached at UNLV from 2004-2011.
“I really hadn’t had much interaction with TJ at that time,” he said. “I first got to know him and follow his career when we were at Oklahoma and he was at Iowa State as an assistant there.
“From that moment on, I was very impressed with all he did, how his team has played and the success they’ve had.”
During the introductory press conference, Otzelberger mentioned that he would lean on Kruger a lot during this experience.
“We have the opportunity to talk basketball from time-to-time and he’s really a guy that does a lot of things well,” Kruger said. “I remember a common opponent where we got a tape of his game against that opponent and I was just impressed with how his team played and how they executed.
“We borrowed some things from him for that opponent so we exchange things like that from time-to-time and just talk basketball. I’m excited to see the success he had in his first year.”
Season ended by Boise State in the Mountain West Championship tournament, 67-61.
At the start of that press conference, TJ admitted that he wished he could start practicing for the next season right away.
His second season is set to begin Wednesday, Nov. 25 at home against Montana State.
This Q & A is expected to take you inside the mind of TJ Otzelberger through his first year on the job as UNLV head coach, directly from the man himself.
Terrel Emerson: The first question that I have is more of a statement you made. We’re going to start at the press conference postgame after the Boise State game and you said you wanted to get right back to work right away.
What was that conversation like after everything had died down with the team before [the pandemic]?
T.J. Otzelberger: It was really about the building of habits and accountability over time and how if you continue to strive for the standards we set in our program on a daily basis. That what you achieve will continue to be elevated and for our guys I think we could see a gradual progression throughout the season.
I think our team was definitely playing better in February and into March than we were in November and December. I think our buy-in and effort and the things that we were doing had grown.
So for me as a coach, you see that progress being made on a daily basis and you see that improvement and you want to keep at it because you don’t want to skip a beat. You want to continue to stay on that track and not be distracted from it so I know there [has to be times] during the year where players have some time off and some freedom to do their own things and there’s certain rules in place to make sure of that but at the same time, my message to those guys was “Let’s not forget what we’ve done, where we’ve come from and how we’ve worked and let’s build on this and keep moving it forward. Let’s not rest on what we’ve done and slow down our momentum now, let’s take it up a notch.”
TE: So 17-15 overall, 12-6 in the Mountain West, which is the most in the program in the past 12 years. Coming here and setting a tone like that, what do you feel like is the statement that you made in your first season?
TJO: Well hopefully people saw, and we talked about it at the introductory press conference, we were going to play hard, we were going to play together and we were going to play a brand of basketball that was going to make our fans proud.
And I feel like we were able to set that standard in the first year and we certainly have much higher goals and expectations that we put on ourselves everyday to ensure that we win at a higher level as we move forward.
But what we like for people to know and what we’d like to achieve everyday is to keep getting better and nobody outworks us, nobody out-toughs us and that’s something we’re going to continue to build on. I’m really proud of our guys and how they embraced that especially down-the-stretch of the season.
TE: Speaking of that introductory press conference, there were a lot of unknowns at that time. This particular question is a two-part question:
A) I want you to speak to the climate that you walked into?
B) Because of that, you were unsure of who was going to stay and who was going to transfer, when for a fact did you know your team was intact?
TJO: First of all when you take over at any program, the players that are currently in that program are going to have a sense of loyalty to that coach and the coaches that recruited them and brought them there. I think when you commit or sign-up for a certain program, you’re signing up for the equation of the coaches as much as anything.
So coming in for us, the previous head coach [Marvin] Menzies had long relationships with a lot of the players. When you’re the new head coach in the spot that I’m in you’re trying to build those relationships almost backward and you’re asking for trust and asking for buy-in before anybody really knows you.
You try to do the best job you can explaining what the program’s going to be about but I still think from a player’s standpoint, the actions speak louder than the words. They want to see it over time and so we talked a lot about those core values, how we want to compete, play and [about] togetherness, work capacity and everything that we really strive for and emphasize in our program.
But until they see you work that way as the leader and until they see you care for them and invest the relationship and time in them, they may not be as willing to give their whole selves to you. Even when we came in, there’s different players in the transfer portal and things along those lines.
All we wanted was to get to a point as quickly as we could where guys made a decision and if they didn’t want to be here for one reason or another we supported them in that. We just wanted the guys that were excited to be here and a part of what we were going to do moving forward and get to that point as quickly as we could.
TE: Early in the season, you changed the rotation a lot. Some by choice, some by discipline, some by injuries but one thing you kept talking about was you were going to set the culture and that was one thing you were focused on.
How do you feel like that went this season?
TJO: I thought it went really well. Guys that are in the program know, we’re going to do what we say we’re going to do. We’re going to hold guys to a very high standard, I think the greatest respect you can show for a young man is to hold them to a high standard and discipline them in times when they don’t uphold that standard because that’s showing them respect, that’s showing them care.
Letting them get by or cut corners or not do everything that’s asked is failing them, not only for our program but for the long-term. I think our guys understood that’s what it was going to be about and that’s who we were and I feel good that the guys that are in our program, moving forward.
Now they know exactly what we’re going to be about and what’s going to be expected of them and that’s we’re going to coach them hard, we’re going to hold them to a standard and we feel good about the precedent we set in the first year, feel good about the trust we built with the players and we look forward to taking this to another level.
TE: The team began the year 1-3 but the three losses were vs. Kansas State, at California and at UCLA, all three tough programs.
What did your team do well in those games?
TJO: I think we competed well, I think we fought, I just think a big part of winning is the belief that you can win. And until a team has proven to themselves they can beat a formidable opponent, you get in those situations in those close games like we had in overtime with Kansas State and Cal where you’re not sure that you can win or should win.
I think the most challenging thing to do as a coach and a program is to change that mindset. Going from either not believing you can win or not being sure if you can win to believing you should win and finding a way to win. And I think that’s what we were able to do and hopefully some of those losses, even though we want to win every game, I think some of those losses early in the season caused guys to reflect and dig deep and hopefully that was what created the belief later in the year that not only could we win the games but we deserved and earned the right to win those games.
TE: And coach right at this moment something happened. [Guard] Marvin [Coleman] jokes that [guard] Bryce [Hamilton] got home cooking.
Something happened here because [Bryce] must’ve hit a switch, from your perspective, what changed?
TJO: I think our team early on probably had a lot of ego. Guys that were really consumed about how many times they touched the ball and how many shots they get and if they play really hard, how many minutes will they get or if they do this in practice, will they get minutes?
And I think we shifted it to a team that is saying what can I do to help the team win and Marvin Coleman had a lot to do with it because Marvin is such a selfless player. We incurred injuries to [guards] Elijah Mitrou-Long and Jonah Antonio. At times that hindered our team [but] it gave Marvin the opportunity to show that he was going to play with no ego and his one objective was going to be for UNLV basketball to play at the highest level possible.
When players see a leader or point guard or someone on their team demonstrate that characteristic and then they see how important it is and how much the coach values it, it gives them an example to follow and I think Marvin did a tremendous job in that respect.
TE: December 4, 2019: at Fresno State, a win [for UNLV]. It was 81-80 and Marvin became a big part of the game plan and I wanted to see what you saw from him. Selflessness?
TJO: Yeah and look he hit a big shot. He had three or four times this year where he hit key shots for us in key moments. But the game at Fresno, he hit a big three late. He got extended minutes in that game and really showed a great job with poise, managing the game, distributing the basketball, rebounded it well and then hit a key shot.
Being a part of an impactful win and especially on the road, in double overtime, when I think we had lost -- that was a game that was a turning point for us in feeling like we kind of had a hex on us in being able to win those close games. That was the first time we proved to ourselves, not only could we win one [but] we could win one on the road and with injuries it really proved even more to our team.
TE: [Oklahoma men’s basketball head coach Lon Kruger and myself] talked about the three-point guard offense and I was saying that it was a bold move.
I’ve sat at the press tables before and a lot of people were wondering whose hands would the ball be in? From my perspective, you can correct me if I’m wrong, but I was looking at the offense like “he wants something different from all three of them so the ball is going to be in every single one of their hands at a different time or another.”
Being that that was such a bold move, what did you see at that time of the year and why did you think that was going to work so well?
TJO: I felt like [it was] based on personnel too, we had [forward] Donnie Tillman out for a period of time, we had some challenges when we played with two bigs. I felt like the four guard lineup could give us some advantages because we’d have multiple playmakers, we needed to deter our turnovers -- we had turned it over too much early in the year so we needed to cut our turnovers.
And it gave us the switch-ability defensively so I thought it could make us really tough to defend and always put a defender whose bigger and slower on a guy who can make plays so now all of a sudden you’re going from most teams put their point guard picking up the other team’s point but again for the sake of our team, we’d say it was Marvin but really we had three guys that could bring the ball up at anytime.
So now you take the other team’s small forward and he’s guarding your point guard which is just different from what people do everyday. We wanted to put some difficult choices on the mind of our opponents [as of] who guards who, how they pick up the ball in transition and then as the possession wears on, all of a sudden you’ve got Elijah with a 6’7” guy on him, who can’t guard him off-the-dribble or you’ve got [guard] Amauri [Hardy] with a skinny guy on him and he can bully him to his spot.
I always look at the game and say what would I least like to play against and what would give the other team the most challenges or problems and I think that we settled on that’s what that would do and it proved to work well for us especially the second time through league-play when team’s are only getting one shot at us and they had to make some tough choices and it really put us in an advantageous position.
TE: A long season doesn’t come without rough patches but one particular rough patch I want to talk about is a 74-66 loss versus Pacific was a part of two straight losses to drop to 4-8 on the season. But that loss was different [...] The question was “How is your team dealing with adversity?” And I’m sure you remember how you answered it and you said, “not well.”
Clearly that loss was different from our standpoint and from your standpoint. What was it?
TJO: I felt like our players weren’t upholding the standard that we needed and oftentimes when you lose with young people, they start to question things instead staying focused on the plan. They start to deviate and then people are maybe in their ears, telling them things than the messages you’re telling them and you become disjointed.
I could tell at that point, we were very disjointed as a team. The decisions we were making on and off-the-court were reflective of what our program is about so even in that press conference, there was one where I felt it was time to challenge our guys. [I wanted to] make it known publicly that we were going to play the guys who played the hardest and did what we asked of them on a daily basis and talent wasn’t going to be a factor in how we made those decisions. Position wasn’t going to be a factor.
We were going to try and get the five guys on the court as often as possible that played the hardest and was the most disciplined and [had] the most effort in the things we were asking everyday and that was how it was going to be.
I think when we shook up the lineup after that, I think guys got the message and they understood that we were going to stick by that, we weren’t going to deviate and they saw that if coach is demanding it, he’s enforcing it and he’s holding guys accountable and changing lineups accordingly I think they learned that was going to be something that was going to be a constant and I wasn’t going to change but they were the ones that needed to change.
TE: Your team clearly got the message because your team won four straight including a win versus Utah State. What did [the team] get back to?
TJO: For us to turn things around or for guys to, in essence, change our season and how we looked at things -- it was going to be important to have that total buy-in. I think as a coach you’ve got to outline what’s important, you’ve got to define roles and then you’ve got to hold the standard and if it’s not being met you’ve got to have accountability.
I think that they saw that accountability, that I was going to do what I said I was going to do and I wasn’t going to deviate and as a result, I think our guys embraced that and were successful because of embracing that work instead of second-guessing things, embracing it was something they took on very well.
TE: This next question is about two specific games, on January 15th and January 18th. The team scored 98 points and 99 points. You spoke at the introductory press conference about wanting to get back to Runnin’ Rebels basketball, was that a glimpse into it right there?
TJO: Part of it is each game you devise a game plan that you think is going to give your team the most success in winning. Both of those teams pressed full-court in one way or another. They picked up the ball and tried to play some zones and things to slow or disrupt the rhythm and to me, you have a choice in that to either allow that to happen, to out-execute them or to play at such a pace that they can’t keep up.
We felt like putting that pace in play accentuating it in those games really gave us that advantage and a lot of chance. Look, I think teams make choices and play a certain style and my job is to develop a game plan that gives us the best chance to win the game.
I want to make sure as a team we find ways to win in the halfcourt, full-court and win in a lot of different ways. It just so happened that those games back-to-back were similar in playing teams with a similar strategy in what we needed to do to beat them.
TE: Let’s look at this New Mexico game really quickly, only because everybody was talking about one of two things after the game: Bryce Hamilton’s 35 points on 14-of-19 [shooting from the field] or Marvin Coleman’s triple-double.
In looking at the stat sheet, I always try to find a different way into the story. I looked around and asked if anybody realized that five players scored in double-figures. I said that might be the first thing TJ mentions when he gets to the locker room.
I’m sure you were proud of all of those things but which one of those stood out on the stat sheet to you [most]?
TJO: I think it was the balance of the team’s scoring because it means we shared the ball, it means opportunities presented itself for multiple guys. In times during the year when we did that and we shared it, we were successful.
That stood out to me first then I would say Marvin’s triple-double just because those are so rare at the college level. Hard to come by and it’s a credit to Marvin, everything he did that night.
And third it was Bryce’s [because] it just came so easy to Bryce. [He] didn’t do anything spectacular, he took advantage of being aggressive in the opportunities that presented itself and he did a great job.
I think, to me, you don’t necessarily have to have balance in scoring for a team to be successful but it proved to be better for our team this year for us to be successful and that was the first thing I looked at.
TE: This is probably going to be the shortest question: San Diego State, in San Diego, their only regular season loss. What was that locker room like afterward?
TJO: You know, it was great because our guys -- we had seen through the course of the year, it felt like it was three or four years packed into one, the roller coaster we had been on. But it was a great feeling as a coach because as much as you want to win every game, you want to develop habits in young men that are going to serve them for the rest of their life.
There was an opportunity to celebrate hard work, daily habits and a conviction to staying the course with things and how that can pay off. So it was a great pride point for me with our group and just really felt good about the progress that these guys had made and what they had proved to themselves.
TE: I know you’re not a person who looks for moral victories but you just kind of explained a little bit right now, but given the loss to Boise State -- the final loss of the season and given what followed after in terms of COVID-19 and the pandemic.
That’s when the offseason started, [so] what moral victory can you take away from a season-ending loss and especially one that was only by six points?
TJO: Well, we want to win every game for sure and having Eli [Mitrou-Long] out of the lineup, that four-guard lineup we discussed earlier, we really didn’t have it in play that game the way we had before.
It was his injury that really changed our team again but our guys fought, our guys competed. You’re right, there are no moral victories but what I wanted to see was that same competitive spirit. We had our limitations of things we were able to do without Eli out there but we weren’t limited as far as the effort we can play with.
I was pleased with that, I feel like we ended our season with a lot of dignity and pride and improved immensely from start to finish and like I said earlier, [it’s] something we’re going to build on and look forward to continuing to take it to the next level as we move forward.