UNLV was coming off an uninspiring home loss to Pacific. T.J. Otzelberger decided to get his players’ attention in the post-game press conference.
“As a coach, I’ve gotta have guys that eat, sleep and breathe basketball. And diving for loose balls is really important to them,” Otzelberger said in December of 2019. “We’ll continue to look in the program and we’ll continue to recruit aggressively to find guys that want to play with that level of passion because that is what this university and our fan base deserves.”
Otzelberger then yanked Amauri Hardy and Jonah Antonio out of the starting lineup in the next game. Bryce Hamilton, after starting 3 of the previous 4 games, only played 7 minutes.
The message was sent. UNLV responded by winning 7 of 8 games. And finished the year at 12-6 in the Mountain West. It was the first UNLV team to win 12 conference games since 2007-08.
That was more than a year ago. But Otzleberger is still not happy with his players.
After the first loss to Boise State, where Hamilton scored 24 of his 26 points in the second half with UNLV down by double figures, Otzelberger stated his displeasure.
“I hate to say it this way, but we need Bryce to be that effective offensively when we have a chance to win the game,” Otzelberger said. “Sometimes we have guys that score a lot of points when the game is not in the balance, and so I’m pleased and proud that Bryce is continuing to compete through this injury, at the same time we need Bryce to play at his highest level with energy and enthusiasm from the start because that’s part of the reason we were at a deficit as well.”
After the second loss to Boise State, Otzelberger was again not pleased.
“Having leadership and experience to command the game late is really important,” Otzelberger said. “And that’s something I feel like we end up in that spot and we’re not getting it. Whether it’s the free throws, whether it’s managing those possessions late, either way, that’s not happening.”
But despite the loss, Otzelberger made sure to complement some of his players.
“I’m excited about the leadership we’re getting from Caleb Grill and from Devin Tillis,” Otzelberger said. “Those guys, every day, you can see those guys coming. They are going to keep being good players for us. Hopefully those guys can keep providing us with some leadership as we move forward.”
UNLV has had rough stretches in each of Otzelberger’s seasons. In year one, the verbal kick in the ass worked. Hamilton, Marvin Coleman and Elijah Mitrou-Long all exceeded expectations in the second half of the season.
But in year two, the team hasn’t responded. And it makes year three a big mystery. Who will be back?
If Tillis and Grill are the leaders of the team, what does that say about Hamilton and David Jenkins?
Year three will bring incredible pressure on Otzelberger to make a run. It might not be NCAA Tournament or bust, but UNLV will need to at least be relevant in bracketology conversations in February. And that will require a significant roster makeover.
Can Otzelberger afford to blow up the roster going into a make or break year?