Wednesday, March 3, 2021 | 2 a.m.
When the Mountain West announced that it would force its teams to play makeup games this week, most coaches across the league groaned in unison. With COVID-19 concerns and bubble résumés at stake, no one wanted to assume the risk that comes with staging additional contests during a pandemic.
But for an underachieving team like UNLV, which has a competitive roster but has not been able to put it all together this season, extra game reps could actually prove to be beneficial.
UNLV will play two games: Wednesday vs. San Diego State and Sunday at Wyoming. If T.J. Otzelberger can put those 80 minutes to good use, there’s a way these makeup games can work for UNLV.
Five priorities for UNLV as they head into makeup week:
Get Hamilton on track
Coming off an All-Mountain West campaign last year, expectations were high for Bryce Hamilton in 2020-21. The junior guard has regressed across the board as a scorer, however, posting a lower field goal percentage (43.1%), 3-point percentage (30.4%), free-throw percentage (66.7%) and offensive rating (100.0) than last year.
Otzelberger believes it’s a case of defenses gameplanning to stop him, and he wants Hamilton to recognize that by passing the ball to open teammates.
“More than anything, teams are loading up more on him,” Otzelberger said. “Every single game there’s more guys converging, more guys stepping in, more people trying to make him pass. We’ve got to continue to do a good job as coaches of showing him where the outlets are, making reads early and that’s something we’re going to have to continue to do.”
Hamilton has upped his assists from 1.4 per game last year to 3.2 this year, but you’d have to go all the way back to Feb. 13 to the last time he handed out more than three assists in a game. And he’s had a couple of zero-assist performances in that time. In the most recent two-game series against Fresno State, he recorded one total assist in 73 minutes of playing time.
More than anything, UNLV needs the light to go on for Hamilton over these final two games. The coaches have been hammering the message all season, and if it finally clicks for Hamilton now it will make UNLV a much tougher team to beat in the Mountain West tournament.
“I know Bryce is an elite scorer,” Otzelberger said, “but the way people are playing him right now, we need him to be an elite passer.”
Jockey for positioning
As bad as UNLV has been this season (11-12 overall, 8-8 MWC), these makeup games could actually vault the scarlet and gray into fifth place in the conference standings.
COVID-19 did them a favor by canceling the UNR-San Jose State game set for Wednesday; by taking away that automatic win for fifth-place UNR (14-9, 9-7 MWC), it sets up a scenario where if the Wolf Pack lose to Colorado State (16-4, 13-3 MWC) on Friday they’ll finish with a 9-8 league record. If UNLV can somehow manage to win both of its makeup games, that will push them to 10-8 in league play and ahead of UNR to steal the fifth seed, which comes with a first-round bye in the conference tournament.
How likely that? Chronologically, the first thing that has to happen is UNLV upsetting first-place San Diego State (19-4, 13-3 MWC) on Wednesday. If that were to somehow come to fruition, it would shift a lot of pressure onto UNR for its Friday tussle with CSU. Then UNLV would have to complete the trifecta with a tricky road win at Wyoming on Sunday.
It won’t be easy, but at the very least it gives UNLV something tangible to play for this week.
Get Grill and Jenkins going
UNLV’s two best outside shooters have been maddeningly inconsistent to this point, but if there’s any path for UNLV to make a run in the conference tourney it’s probably going to include David Jenkins and Caleb Grill making multiple 3-pointers per half.
Jenkins was playing better over the second half of the season, but he shot 6-of-21 in the Fresno State series (combined 0-of-8 from 3-point range). Grill, on the other hand, had seen his production wane in the second half before exploding for 18 points in Friday’s win over Fresno State. There’s no telling where and when Jenkins and Grill are going to play well.
The answer for Grill may be as simple as including him in the offense. His teammates actively looked for him on Friday and Grill responded by aggressively firing away. Otzelberger wants more of that.
“I think the ball movement [against Fresno State] got Caleb some better looks than we’ve gotten him in a while,” Otzelberger said.
With Jenkins, it’s a matter of eliminating bad shots (contested 3’s off the dribble) and getting him open looks in rhythm.
Will these two additional games provide enough time for UNLV to figure out how to utilize both of its marksmen? The season probably depends on it.
Peek ahead to transfer market
There is going to be substantial roster turnover this offseason, so UNLV’s incoming class will end up being larger than the two high-school recruits currently signed. Most important, the program needs a dynamic point guard and an athletic defender in the frontcourt, and the best way to fill those holes for the 2021-22 season will be via the transfer portal.
It’s going to be a super-competitive market this offseason, with just about every school vying for experienced players who will be — pending the NCAA’s expected adoption of new transfer rules — immediately eligible next year.
The portal is already filling up, and once a player enters his name, coaches from other schools are allowed to contact them to begin the recruiting process. Look for Otzelberger and his staff to be active and aggressive in pursuit of impact players. They’re probably already making calls.