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UNLV Runnin’ Rebels Season Preview

The 2019-20 college basketball season ended early due to the coronavirus pandemic and now its following season has been altered because of it.


UNLV’s Runnin’ Rebels will play in a shortened season that will put this second-year staff and essentially brand new team to the test.


Head coach TJ Otzelberger and company went 17-15 in his first season in the valley, winning 12 conference games for the first time in 12 years.


That Mountain West-mark was good enough to end the season in a three-way tie for second place with Utah State and Nevada – Reno.


Boise State eliminated UNLV from the Mountain West Conference Tournament with a 67-61 win in the quarterfinals.


Montana State will be welcomed into the Thomas & Mack Center as the first opponent of the new season Wednesday, Nov. 25.


This season’s preseason predictions have the Runnin’ Rebels projected to finish fourth in the conference.


Junior guard Bryce Hamilton made the All-Mountain West Preseason Team after ranking sixth in scoring in the conference last season averaging 16 points a game.


In addition, he scored 20-plus points in 10 games with a season-high of 35 points against New Mexico.


Junior guard David Jenkins Jr., who sat out last season per NCAA-transfer rules, was projected to be the Preseason Newcomer of the Year for the Mountain West.


Jenkins made the transition with Otzelberger last season after spending two years with the coach at South Dakota State.


Jenkins increased his scoring from 16.1 to 19.7 in his time as a Jackrabbit.


He was also a part of the SD State team that won the Summit Conference title in 2018.


Freshman guard Nick Blake was named the expected winner of the Freshman of the Year award come season's end.


Blake is a Las Vegas native, who averaged 17.5 points per game while at Durango High School in addition to close to four rebounds and three assists.


He also was a part of a 27-2 team at IMG Academy that would eventually be ranked No. 1 in the nation.


ESPN had Blake rated as a four-star prospect.


Otzelberger and his staff will be tasked with replacing nine players, including guards Amauri Hardy and Elijah Mitrou-Long as well as forward Donnie Tillman.


Hardy, Mitrou-Long and Tillman ranked as the second, third and fourth highest scorers on the team last season.


Hardy is now at Oregon playing for the Ducks while Tillman transferred to New Mexico State and is now an Aggie.


Mitrou-Long has no more collegiate eligibility left and is now playing for PAOK in the Greek Basket League.


The team also lost guard Jonah Antonio who is now in the Atlantic Coast Conference with the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.


Three players return from last season with significant playing experience in guards Hamilton and Marvin Coleman along with center Cheikh Mbacke Diong.


Coleman averaged 6.9 points per game, nearly five rebounds per game and 2.3 assists per game last season after blossoming in Otzelberger’s four-guard lineup.


Mbacke, entering his senior year, averaged 7.7 points per game and close to eight rebounds a game last year.


He also added over a block a game.


Guard Trey Hurlburt also returns from last season but only logged seven minutes of playing time in the three games of action.


Jenkins redshirted along with forward Moses Wood.


Other than Blake, UNLV welcomes eight newcomers including Iowa State-transfer guard Caleb Grill.


He may be expected to fill in as the perimeter option similar to Antonio’s role last season.


In his one season as a Cyclone, 52 of Grill’s 70 shot attempts came from beyond-the-arc.


Otzelberger’s 2020 recruiting class ranks first in the Mountain West after finishing seventh last year.


In addition, the class was ranked 55th nationally after being listed as the 136th best class last season.


Blake as well as guard Donovan Yap and forward Kendrick Gilbert are local talent from Las Vegas.


The trio will be joining Coleman and Hurlburt as hometown products already on the roster.


Four other members of the roster are from either Reno or the state of California.


Last year’s team shot 32 percent from three-point range, a mark this year’s team will be looking to improve.


Although, UNLV held opponents to just 34 percent from three-point range in addition to shooting a better field goal percentage overall than its opponents last season.


One strong suit for last year’s Runnin’ Rebels was the team’s rebounding margin, where it was +6.7 averaging close to 40 a game.


However, the team’s assists to turnover ratio proved noteworthy at 0.9


UNLV averaged 12.6 assists per game but turned the ball over 13.3 times a game.


The new campaign opens with that Wednesday, Nov. 25 matchup with Montana State before a three-day road trip for the Maui Invitational.


This year’s tournament will be held in Asheville, North Carolina due to the pandemic.


UNLV has three non-conference games listed on the schedule at Kansas State and at home against Eastern Washington and Pepperdine.


Mountain West conference play will begin Dec. 20 for the Runnin’ Rebels with the team playing two-game series against its familiar foes.


The conference tournament is slated to take place from March 10th to the 13th.


Due to COVID-19, the season will start without fans being allowed in the building while cutouts are available for purchase.


It is unclear at this time if that will change prior to the end of the season.


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