UNLV basketball coach T.J. Otzelberger has become a technological ace, probably like many during the coronavirus pandemic, over the past 2½ months.
Some Zoom video conferences have been intimate, with a recruit, and maybe a coach or relatives. Others have been among his staff, from 10 to 20 people. Those with the athletic department’s other coaches have involved up to 30.
With the entire department staff, 200 might participate. Picture The Brady Bunch intro times 22.
The fun ones, however, are comprised of Otzelbrger and his players. They poke fun at each other with clothes or a funky hairstyle being prime targets.
“It’s in real time, and it’s good for them to crack jokes and see each others’ faces,” said Otzelberger. “It’s funny. A part of it is talking basketball, but we like to have a part that’s light-hearted.
“Most of the guys don’t have access to courts or gyms, so it’s been about relationships, the trust, eating right and doing what they can do from a strength and conditioning standpoint; a lot of push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups.”
Typically, according to Otzelberger, the Rebels would have reunited about a week after the Final Four for training and conditioning workouts, through early May. They would have reconvened in early June. The pandemic put everything on hiatus.
The NCAA cleared players to return, voluntarily, on June 1. Otzelberger said, the UNLV administration and campus cleared the athletes to come back June 8.
“But we’re still taking a wait-and-see approach, to make sure we do everything we can to ensure it’s a safe environment before we bring our guys back,” he said. “The main thing we’ve tried to do is keep our players, and their health and safety — and that of their families — at the forefront of all of our decisions. As much as we’re all going through a lot, we want to make sure we’re there for them, that we’re compassionate and make sure they have what they need.”
Preferred 18 games
Otzelberger and UNLV athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois did not support the Mountain West moving to a 20-game hoops schedule, from its current 18-game model. Last week, conference athletic directors parroted their coaches in voting 7-4 for the alteration. League presidents are expected to ratify it next month.
The balanced schedule where everyone plays everyone, home and away, will commence in 2022-23. UNLV loses some flexibility and control for two chances to play highly regarded non-conference foes that might help it nab an at-large NCAA bid.
“Our league has been a two-bid league (recently), so scheduling is so important,” he said. “Teams get left out of the tournament if you don’t schedule aggressively, or enough tough non-league games. Those two extra games give you an opportunity to play some big-name opponents.
“We voted for 18. We got shot down.”
UNLV went 17-15 (12-6 in the Mountain West), in Otzelberger’s début season. It mostly went to script as the Rebels won 13 of 17 games as a favorite, lost four of 15 as an underdog. Only four players return, led by junior Bryce Hamilton, an all-league guard whose 16-point average led the Rebels. He tallied at least 20 points in 10 games.
Last offseason, the Division-I transfer market consisted of more than 1,000 players; last week, this offseason hit 813.
Otzelberger hopes such turnover does not signal the end of continuity in college hoops. That is a point of his emphasis in recruiting not just a player but his entire support network, and recruiting smartly.
“If a team is going to win, people are going to have to buy into rules and do things that aren’t always the most exciting,” he said. “To do that, you have to have everybody on board. And you have to evaluate that in the (recruiting) process. If you tell them the truth and it goes that way, I think you help build that trust and credibility.
“What we’ll strive to do is build great relationships, tell them the truth and, hopefully, we recruit the guys who want to be part of something bigger than themselves. If it doesn’t come to them right away, they’re not going to be guys that leave.”
As such a fan and ardent student of the game, Otzelberger missed the theater of the NCAA Tournament, its first cancellation since its inception in 1939. His players, he says, missed out on some inspiration and motivation, as most have friends, ex-teammates or foes who would have been participating in the madness.
“They’d be thinking about that dream,” he says. “So not having it was a challenge, certainly, from that standpoint for all of us.”
Because Gonzaga defended so well, took smart shots and shared the ball, he liked the Zags to win the title.
“It would have been nice to see San Diego State go far, even though they’re our rival,” he said. “To see someone from our league, and someone we beat … but I’d say Gonzaga was the team I would have picked.”
On Feb. 22, the Aztecs were 26-0 and ranked fourth in the nation when UNLV went to San Diego and pulled off a spectacular 66-63 upset.
Asked about his many newcomers, Otzelberger discussed Italian power forward Edoardo Del Cadia, a 6-foot-7 junior who recorded 11 double-doubles as a sophomore at the College of Central Florida, and Nicquel Blake, a 6-6 swingman from Durango High by way of IMG Academy.
“(Del Cadia) can do a lot out there,” he said. “What we love the most is how hard he plays and how tough he is. He’ll help us on the front line at power forward.”
Upon committing, Del Cadia told a blog site that his UNLV teammates “will get open from my hard screens.”
Blake had also visited Kansas State.
“Nic is a very talented freshman,” said Otzelberger. “A playmaker and a great rebounder at guard. Very versatile.”