David Jenkins bailed UNLV out, has he earned T.J. Otzelberger’s trust back?

David Jenkins’ arrival to UNLV this season started off with high expectations and the preseason newcomer of the year award from the Mountain West. 

The transfer from South Dakota State was supposed to be Bryce Hamilton’s running mate. A duo that would make UNLV contenders to win the conference. 

But 15 games into the season, David Jenkins was benched. And then he was taken out of the starting lineup. 

T.J. Otzelberger wanted Jenkins to be better on the defensive end as a leader. With Marvin Coleman out for the season and Bryce Hamilton out with ankle injury, Jenkins failed to live up to Otzelberger’s expectations in back-to-back losses to Nevada. 

“I wasn’t holding myself accountable to be a leader of the team,” Jenkins said. “I’m pretty sure I am one of the oldest guys on the team. I didn’t feel like I was doing a good job of leading some of the guys like Nick Blake, Devin Tillis, Donavan Yap and all of our young guys. We’re a really young team. At my old school I had someone doing that for me, being a leader for me. And I just want to lead for these guys. I feel like T.J. is holding me accountable for that. And that’s fine. I accept the role. I just want to be a part of winning. And we won tonight.”

But on Monday, UNLV needed Jenkins to avoid what would have been one of the most embarrassing losses in program history. 

Air Force is very bad; the Falcons rank 324th in Ken Pom. UNLV has never lost to a team ranked outside the top 300 in the Ken Pom era (2001-curent). But UNLV was trailing by six points at half time. And faced a two-point deficit with 13:25 to play when Hamilton picked up his fourth foul.

With the leading scorer on the bench, Jenkins took over and preserved UNLV’s perfect record against the bottom of college basketball. 

From the 13:25 mark on, Jenkins scored 20 of UNLV’s 30 points. He finished the game with 26. He looked like the Mountain West newcomer of the year. 

“Good to see David step up for us,” Otzelberger said. “He had that aggressiveness offensively. That’s the guy we need out there every night. When he’s playing with that level of tenacity and competitive spirit, he can be great for us.”

But these are all highlights of Jenkins’ offensive performance. He was benched for his defensive lapses and lack of leadership. But Otzelberger thought the defensive end of the floor is what jump started Jenkins big night. 

“I think David overall had a tremendous sense of urgency.,” Otzelberger said. “The game, in general, you can’t play it hard on one side and not on the other. You can’t have moments where you focus and moments where you’re not. And where I was really pleased with David tonight is I thought his defensive focus was certainly better. His movement, his activity. He’s got some strength and physicality to him. That was there on defense. And then I think the offense took care of itself. He’s a dynamic scorer. And when he gets it going you see that energy he brings to the game and I thought that started for him on the defensive end.”

UNLV’s defense did not have a great night. Air Force scored 1.12 point per possession, their third highest mark of the season. The win certainly covers up some of the ugly, but ultimately Otzelberger was not disappointed in Jenkins effort or leadership. 

Otzelberger seems to have pressed the right button with Jenkins, as his 26 points on Monday topped his 22 points from the three previous games combined. But the coach gave credit to the player for handling the benching well. 

“I know that young people when they have character and they’re determined and they’re passionate that they are able to take things that aren’t going their way and they are able to turn it in a positive direction through some resiliency and hard work. Fortunately, David responded, especially tonight because we needed it,” Otzelberger said.

Now, we’ll see if Otzelberger has renewed confidence in Jenkins for the rest of the season or if this was a one game blip caused by Bryce Hamilton’s foul trouble. 

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