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Kathy Kmonicek / AP

North Carolina guard R.J. Davis (4) leaps to shoot a basket over UNLV guard Bryce Hamilton (13) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Maui Invitational tournament, Monday, Nov. 30, 2020, in Asheville, N.C.

David Jenkins broke out of his early-season slump but it wasn’t enough to power UNLV to its first win of the season, as the scarlet and gray dropped the final game of the Maui Invitational to Davidson, 77-73.

UNLV came out strong behind Jenkins’ hot shooting (4-of-8 from 3-point range), but an offensive drought allowed Davidson to close the first half on a 17-5 run and the Wildcats went into the break with a 41-29 lead.

UNLV trailed by double digits for most of the second half, but consecutive triples from Moses Wood, Jenkins and Devin Tillis brought them within 58-51 with nine minutes to play. Bryce Hamilton hit a jumper and followed that with a spinning layup and a pair of free throws to make it 60-57 with 5:35 left.

A zone defense helped stifle the Davidson attack while UNLV went on its run, but the Wildcats eventually cracked it. Hyunjung Lee hit a 3-pointer and Carter Collins sank two free throws to restore Davidson’s advantage to 65-57 with three minutes to play.

Hamilton scored 11 straight points to get UNLV within 75-73 with 10 seconds left, but Davidson made its free throws to account for the final margin.

Lee and Kellen Grady led Davidson with 21 and 22 points, respectively. Jenkins scored a season-high 18, while Hamilton led UNLV with 27 points.

UNLV is now 0-4 on the year. Things have not gone according to plan, obviously, and the schedule doesn’t let up, as the team will return from Asheville, N.C., and head right back on the road for Saturday’s game at Kansas State.

Here’s what we’ve learned about UNLV basketball as they return from “Maui.”

Defense is an uphill battle

UNLV is undersized, which is partly by design because T.J. Otzelberger wants to play four guards at a time. The problem is, when a coach opts to play small it’s because he is willing to sacrifice height in exchange for quickness, and UNLV’s guards, as it turns out, are not quick.

Marvin Coleman is a grinder at point guard, but he’s not a fast-twitch penetrator like Elijah Mitrou-Long was last year. David Jenkins is a standstill shooter. Bryce Hamilton is a pace player who relies on footwork more than speed to get to his spots. And Caleb Grill maxes out his physical talent through intense effort. None of them can consistently break down a defense off the dribble (or at least they haven’t shown it yet).

With no one getting inside the defense, opponents haven’t been forced to rotate or help very often. That means every time UNLV is attacking, they’re going against a set defense. That’s a tough way to earn a living at the Division I level.

The lack of quickness also creates issues at the defensive end, where UNLV has had trouble staying in front of ball-handlers. That has forced the team to sag off on the perimeter, and opponents have used that cushion to shoot uncontested 3-pointers.

Otzelberger’s most pressing issue is figuring out a way to scheme around that weakness. He tried to combat the lack of quickness on defense by going to a zone for stretches of the second half against Davidson, and that appeared to be effective. So maybe the coaches and players will figure it out as the season goes on. It’s going to be difficult, as the first four games showed, but Otzelberger molded last year’s team into a legit squad by the end of the season. He’s got his hands full again.

Caleb Grill is the real deal

UNLV had to wait until the last minute to find out if Grill would be eligible this season, and what a godsend he has turned out to be.

Grill has an argument as the team’s best all-around player through the first four games, as he has provided outside shooting, decisive passing, defensive playmaking and good old-fashioned hustle. He cooled off a little against Davidson (six points on 2-of-8 shooting), but his season numbers are good: 14.0 points, 2.3 steals, 41.7 percent from 3-point range.

If Grill can slot into the No. 3 role on a consistent basis — which is the way the team was constructed — UNLV can be a pretty well-rounded squad.

The freshmen are not ready

Otzelberger chose to bring in six true freshmen this year, and it was always going to be risky to count on skinny 18-year-olds to make up half the roster. UNLV is dealing with the downside of that approach early in the season, as frosh like Donavan Yap, Jhaylon Martinez, Isaac Lindsey and Reece Brown have been non-factors.

Even the first-year players who have gotten minutes — wing Nick Blake and forward Devin Tillis — have been largely ineffective. And that has hurt the most, as Blake and Tillis were supposed to be the two freshmen who could earn rotation minutes this season.

Player development is going to be a big theme throughout the year, because UNLV needs Blake and Tillis to be good by the time the Mountain West tournament comes around. Blake scored 16 in the opener and Tillis tallied six points in 14 minutes against Davidson, so there is a foundation upon which to build. But it’s going to take longer than we thought.

Otzelberger said he’s willing to give more playing time to freshmen—when and if they earn it.

“We need to continue to look to go deeper into our bench and get more guys opportunities,” Otzelberger said. “As you’re building a program, you need young people to come into your program and pay their dues. They need to come into your program and earn it. It’s not good if they come in and they’re handed things, it’s good if they come in and earn those things.”

Live and die by the 3

Just four games into the season UNLV has already hoisted 127 shots from beyond the arc, or 31.8 per game. That’s an increase of eight more treys per game over last year’s team (23.6 attempts), and for better or worse it looks like the 2020-21 squad is going to be defined by its ability to hit from long distance.

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

Article written by #LasVegasSun