Marvin Menzies

Rebuilding the Rebels

A nine-point plan to get them back to tournament form

There’s no quick fix for the UNLV basketball program.

When Dave Rice was fired in the middle of his third consecutive underwhelming year, the dismissal was destined to have long-lasting effects, and we’re seeing the back end of that equation now. Most of the roster transferred or turned pro, including several cornerstone players who were supposed to form the foundation of the team over the next few years. And while the in-season firing was supposed to give the UNLV administrators a head start on finding a replacement, the opposite happened, and it took until late April before the carousel finally stopped and Marvin Menzies was hired (let’s not even get into that whole Chris Beard thing). That cost the Rebels valuable recruiting time, leading to a motley incoming class and depressed expectations for the 2016-17 season, which tips off on November 11.

Despite all of that, the Runnin’ Rebels are not dead and buried. It will take time—years, probably—but Menzies is a capable coach and the program can be revived if things are done the right way. So here, we present our nine-point plan for rebuilding UNLV basketball.

1. Present a united front

Athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy is leaving her post on July 1 for another job within the university, which means Menzies will soon be working under an athletic director who didn’t hire him, so …  awkward.

If Menzies and the new AD instantly become best friends while doing karate in the garage, there’s no problem. The faster Menzies and the new boss can develop a working relationship, the better for everyone involved. Turbulence within the athletic department isn’t good for anyone inside the program, and it can scare away people on the outside. (How many potential coaches steered clear of UNLV after all the negative attention brought on by Rice’s in-season guillotining? We may never know.)

UNLV is a once-great program struggling to return to prominence, and the Rebels are starting at the absolute bottom. If the administration doesn’t have Menzies’ back and the school ends up hiring another coach three years from now, it’s safe to say the rebuilding effort failed and we’ll be starting all over again. From the bottom.

2. Continue scheduling the best

This may sound counterintuitive when Duke and Kansas are smashing the Rebels by 20-plus points this season, but Menzies would be well-served by continuing the previous staff’s edict of scheduling at a national level.

One of UNLV’s biggest advantages over its Mountain West rivals is its brand. No other school in the league has anything close to the Rebels’ history and cachet, and though it will result in some painful spankings—especially over the next couple years while the team is rebuilding—playing the blue bloods will give Menzies a leg up when it comes to recruiting. Young players want to see their name in lights, on a big marquee, playing televised games against the big boys. UNLV, unlike the rest of the Mountain West, can offer that. Menzies should take advantage of it.

3. Recruit Southern California

The greater Los Angeles area is one of the most talent-rich regions in the country, and whereas the previous staff ignored it, Menzies has spent the past three decades coaching and recruiting in SoCal. He’s respected by every high school, juco and AAU coach in every gym in the Southland, and judging by his actions this summer, Menzies intends to prioritize turning it into UNLV’s main recruiting pipeline.

The Rebels have already offered scholarships to a bushel of California prospects in future classes, including superstar-type recruits such as point guard Brandon Williams (Encino, California), the No. 14 player in the Class of 2018, and center Onyeka Okongwu (Chino Hills, California) and guard Cassius Stanley (North Hollywood, California), both of whom are rated in the top 10 in 2019.

If the Rebels are going to have a chance at a blue-chip talent in the next couple recruiting classes, odds are overwhelming that he’s going to hail from Southern California. It’s up to Menzies and his staff to open the pipeline.

4. Land a homegrown star

Los Angeles isn’t the only nearby region churning out college basketball prospects. Las Vegas itself is no slouch in that department, and keeping some of those prep stars at home would definitely help accelerate the rebuilding process.

Rice and his staff did an excellent job of making UNLV a viable choice for local players, a long-term effort that culminated when the Rebels landed Stephen Zimmerman, perhaps the best high school prospect in Nevada high school history. Menzies’ late hiring probably means UNLV won’t be able to land Troy Brown Jr. (Centennial) or Charles O’Bannon Jr. (Bishop Gorman), the two jewels of the local 2017 class. But if Menzies can snag someone like Coronado’s Bryan Penn-Johnson, a 6-foot-10 center regarded as the top in-state prospect in 2018, it would help make it acceptable among other local kids to start coming back to UNLV.

5. Find the point guard

The point guard position has been something of a boondoggle for UNLV in recent years, but if Menzies can find a long-term answer at the one, it will pay huge dividends for the rebuild.

Instead of churning through grad transfers and one-year stopgaps, as Rice tended to do, Menzies should target a prospect who can step in and eventually fill the role for two or three years. This is one position that doesn’t have to be a star recruit—gamesmanship and basketball IQ can be enough to win—but it’s hard to identify on the recruiting trail.

Menzies signed Zion Morgan over the summer in hopes that the athletic Chicago native could be that guy, but that shouldn’t preclude the coaches from bringing in more point guard prospects in the 2017 and 2018 classes if they think they can find the right fit.

6. Develop an identity

The Rebels may not be good this season, but it’s important that they figure out what they are. Menzies had a very defined style at his last coaching stop, as he turned New Mexico State into the biggest, baddest, slowest, most smashmouth post-up team in the Western Athletic Conference. Those Aggies teams knew their identity, and that continuity helped them sustain their success from season to season.

UNLV won’t play the same style—Menzies has said since he took the job that he wants the Rebels to play at a fast pace—but look for the coaching staff to instill the same single-mindedness in approach that Menzies cultivated at NMSU. Whether it’s commitment to a fast-break attack, a certain defensive scheme, overall toughness or some other style, Menzies will make sure the Rebels know their identity as a team.

7. Avoid shortcuts

Battling for elite recruits gives the fan base something to obsess over year-round, and landing NBA talent is exciting. But there are some pitfalls to building a roster of superstars. “One-and-done” players can struggle to assimilate, and blue-chippers who don’t get enough playing time are apt to transfer. The effect can be a transient culture, which we saw happen at UNLV under the previous regime.

Menzies should go the other way and embrace longevity—more juniors and seniors, and fewer one-year quick fixes. Menzies has said that will be part of the plan. He wants to recruit the best players available, including NBA talent—but he has said he’ll stay away from high schoolers who intend to leave after a season or two. Even if that causes the Rebels to pass on a few game-changing talents, it will be worth it to develop a more consistent roster going forward.

8. Emphasize development

Menzies doesn’t come in with a mandate to win now. No coach could be expected to perform such a miracle. The bright side of the situation is that Menzies has freedom to develop his players and his system without any pressure to win games right away.

That developmental focus could take many forms. If Menzies wants to hone Jalen Poyser’s point guard skills, for example, he can experiment with it even if the offense isn’t responding that night. If freshman Troy Baxter Jr. makes a mistake on defense, Menzies can leave him on the court to play through it and learn from it. All the young players should be put on specific developmental plans to help them become contributors at the college level.

9. Make the NCAA Tournament … by 2019

Again, winning now isn’t the priority. UNLV fans are smart enough to see the big picture, and they’ll stick with the team through the first rebuilding year. But the landscape of Las Vegas sports is changing. Next year, the Rebels will be competing with an NHL team for local attention. And heck, the year after that could see an NFL team moving in down the block. So while the Rebels don’t have to win immediately, they do have to remain relevant.

Three years should be long enough for Menzies to bring in a full roster of his type of players
and get them playing at a high level. If the Rebels aren’t back in the NCAA tournament by then, it will be time to start questioning the rebuild.

But as long as Menzies sticks to the plan laid out here, that shouldn’t be a problem. So mark it down now—in March of 2019, the Rebels will be back.