In just three years, Nevada basketball coach Eric Musselman has impressively retooled his team. He arrived on campus after a nine-win season and promptly led the Wolf Pack to the CBI championship game and back-to-back Mountain West Conference titles.
After dispatching UNLV in the Mountain West Tournament last week, Musselman recalled that finding shooters was his top recruiting priority back in 2015.
“The first thing we had to do is get some shooters, no matter what. Doesn’t matter if a guy can’t dribble, how tall, how short, we just had to get some shooters. And obviously the focus recruiting-wise was to fill a gap that we were so horrendous at,” Musselman said.
Nevada ranked 350th out of 351 teams in three-point shooting the year before Musselman took over. Just three years later, the Wolf Pack upped their percentage from beyond the arc from 26 percent to 40 percent, ranking 20th in the country.
As coach Marvin Menzies looks to his third year at UNLV, that shooting prowess is the biggest difference between his rebuild and Musselman’s.
UNLV nearly upset top-seeded Nevada in the Mountain West Tournament. The Rebels had an eight-point lead at halftime thanks to three-point shooting. The Rebels buried 6 of 13 threes in the opening 20 minutes, including three from gunner Jovan Mooring.
But in the second half Nevada flipped the script, hitting 8 of 13 threes while UNLV knocked down just 1 of 10.
With good shooting, the Rebels nearly knocked out the best team in the Mountain West. With poor shooting, they got outscored by 13 over the course of the final 20 minutes.
UNLV, like Nevada, recently suffered a horrible season. The Rebels posted just 10 regular-season wins in 2016-17, one more than Nevada had the season prior to Musselman’s arrival. But unlike their rivals in Reno, UNLV has not embraced the three-pointer.
In conference play, UNLV ranked last, making just 29 percent of threes. For the season, just 27.7 percent of the Rebels’ shots were threes—the fewest in the Mountain West.
Ignoring the three is something Menzies teams have always done. In his 11 years as head coach at New Mexico State and UNLV, just one of his teams ranked in the top 200 nationally in three-point rate.
Menzies loves his post players. Brandon McCoy and Shakur Juiston dominated the offense this season and were the team’s top two scorers. But more teams are moving to a three-point-based offense, and post-play is becoming extinct. Teams took more threes than ever this year and made them at the highest rate in the last decade. The game has evolved past the low-post game, but Menzies is still trying to win that way.
This season’s roster did not lend itself to great three-point shooting. UNLV had just one player with at least 30 three-point attempts shoot above the national average of 35 percent. Implementing a three-point-based offense would have likely made UNLV worse, but it highlights what Menzies has to prioritize in recruiting: shooting.
Another distinct advantage Nevada held over UNLV this season was length. The Rebels had a massive frontcourt with the seven-footer McCoy and 6-foot-9 Juiston inside. But UNLV’s backcourt was small.
Jordan Johnson measured in at 5-foot-10, Mooring was listed at 6-foot-2. Nevada didn’t use a player shorter than 6-foot-4 this season.
Mooring made 3 of his 5 three-pointers in the first half against Nevada. But he was 0 of 4 in the second half and did not score. The reason: Musselman had the lengthy Cody Martin defend Mooring.
“We put Cody Martin on him,” Musselman said. “We wanted to try to get him to shoot over an extended hand of a 6-foot-7 player.”
UNLV needs more length on the perimeter. Johnson and Mooring were effectively useless while defending taller players. That shortcoming was one of the reasons that UNLV finished ninth in the conference in defensive efficiency.
Looking ahead, UNLV has added a little bit more length on the perimeter. Bryce Hamilton and Trey Woodbury, both 6-foot-4 guards, are signed with UNLV for next season. But those two freshmen will have to unseat Noah Robotham (6-foot-1) and Amauri Hardy (6-foot-2) for starting spots. UNLV could be overmatched once again in perimeter size next year.
Menzies has brought UNLV back from a disastrous coaching search and a 10-win season. He has brought talent to UNLV. But now he has to adjust to the changes in college basketball to keep up with the best in the Mountain West.
This story has been updated to correct an error about Musselman’s tenure at Nevada.