Do T.J. Otzelberger’s defenses get better as the season goes on?

Last season UNLV ended the season as one of the best teams in the Mountain West. The Rebels ended San Diego State’s perfect season as part of a 6-1 end to the regular season. 

UNLV’s late season surge was fueled by a four-guard lineup that kept the floor spaced and maximized UNLV’s offensive potential. But the primary reason UNLV ended the year so strong was a dominant defense.

Including the Mountain West tournament loss, UNLV held six straight opponents under 1 point per possession. It was the first time since the 2015-16 season that UNLV had reeled off six straight games of defensive excellence.

The improved defense helped save T.J. Otzelberger’s first season. The Rebels were 11-13 overall and 6-5 in the Mountain West until the stellar finish propelled UNLV to a 17-15 record and 12-6 conference mark. 

But at the start of the 2020-21 season, UNLV’s defense looked useless. The Rebels allowed Montana State, North Carolina Alabama and Davidson to all score over 1.08 points per possession (the national average is 1.02). 

UNLV couldn’t defend anyone off the dribble. They fouled too much. And they surrendered three-pointers in bunches. 

But Otzelberger’s team has again turned the corner on the defensive end. During UNLV’s recent five game winning streak, the Rebels never allowed a team to score over 0.9 points per possession. Two of those games were against Mountain West bottom feeder New Mexico and two more against non-division 1 teams. 

But even when considering the opponent, UNLV’s defensive displays have been impressive. The 0.55 points per possession Saint Katherine scored is the lowest mark for any UNLV opponent in the Ken Pom era (2001-02). UNLV also held Utah State to its lowest point per possession mark of the season at 0.78. 

Regardless of competition, UNLV appears to have fixed the defense midseason for the second straight year. 

Otzelberger was on ESPN Las Vegas and talked about why his defense has made an in-season leap back to back seasons.

“First of all, having the time and repetition. Offensively, so much of it comes down to players’ natural instinct and strengths. How do you accentuate them? How do you fit them together? There is a little more of an art form to that. 

Where I think defensively, at least in my world, it is repetition, it is daily habit, it is continued focus. Guys don’t go to the gym every day and do 500 closeouts. The really good defensive teams, you close out as much as you shoot the ball and you get as many reps. We certainly didn’t have those. Personnel wise, we’ve kind of changed how we playing some things and we are getting a little more length on the floor. 

I’m a big daily habit guy. I think our defense will get better as the year moves on because I know how we will practice every day. I think that happened to us last year as well.”

But T.J. Otzelberger’s defenses do not have a history of getting better as the season wears on. In his three seasons at South Dakota State, only Otzelberger’s first season saw the defense improve, and it was modest.

The above graphs display South Dakota State’s game-by-game defensive ratings. The red line is the season long trend line for defensive efficiency. In Otzelberger’s first season at South Dakota State, the defense improved by the slimmest of margins. But in his next two seasons, the defense actually got worse as the year went on.

Last season was the first time an Otzelberger defense has shown significant improvement from the start of the season to the end thanks to the dominant final six games.

With UNLV’s poor start in 2020-21, UNLV’s defense had a lot of room to improve. With the defensive dominance during the five game win streak, the change is much more noticeable.

This season is more than halfway over, but the defensive improvement has been even more drastic. And based on the remaining schedule, there is reason to think UNLV’s defensive success will continue. 

There is only one more team on the schedule with a top 100 Ken Pom offense. And three that are outside the top 200. 

TeamKen Pom Offensive Rank
Air Force267
Boise State62
San Jose State263
Fresno State211

Four and a half seasons is not a massive sample size to declare Otzelberger a good or bad in-season defensive coach. And ultimately the positive aspects of his defensive improvements have been apparent because of how bad the defenses were to start the season. 

Next year, if UNLV is going to make a legitimate run at the NCAA Tournament, they will have to be good defensively to start and finish the year. 

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