T.J. Otzelberger has UNLV playing slower than ever

The Jerry Tarkanian era hangs over present day UNLV like a curse for current coaches. Tarkanian made UNLV a powerhouse and won a national title. 

While those expectations will always hover around the program, the way Tarkanian’s teams played applies a specific pressure. Play fast. 

They are the Runnin’ Rebels after all. 

But under T.J. Otzelberger the last two seasons, UNLV may be playing slower than ever, at least relative to competition. 

The Rebels average 67.4 possessions per game, which ranks outside the top 250 in college basketball. It is only the second time since 2001 UNLV has not been 1 of the top 250 fastest teams. The other time was last season – T.J. Otzelberger’s first season. 

Possession data doesn’t exist before the year 2000, but we can use box scores to estimate possessions. The national title winning UNLV team averaged roughly 84 possessions per game, about 16 more than the current Rebels.

Otzleberger is not running like Tarkanian. 

But when Otzelberger was at South Dakota State he was. His teams were among the fastest in the nation. His 2017-18 team ranked 61st in the country in tempo and his 2018-19 team was 40th. The next season, his UNLV team was 262nd.

Why is Otzelberger suddenly playing slow? He spoke about playing fast (specifically to matching San Jose State’s tempo) on the coaches show on ESPN Las Vegas last night.

“We haven’t been able to play at that same speed to just fly it up and attack it,” Otzelberger said. “Because I don’t know that as a team we are quite as sure of what the right play is at that speed. We don’t have guys that are used to playing as fast and making decisions as fast. And that’s where we would ultimately like to be.”

First off, UNLV doesn’t have a point guard. Even with a healthy Marvin Coleman, UNLV wasn’t strong at the point. Coleman had 1 of the 5 highest turnover rates in the Mountain West last season. Playing fast without a point guard (or with a high turnover point guard) is not likely to bring success. 

“Without that point guard, we are deliberate in how we attack,” Otzelberger said.

But the bigger problem might simply be UNLV’s defense. This could be the worst defense in UNLV history, as they rank 213th in Ken Pom’s defensive efficiency. Playing faster leads to more possessions for the defense, and likely more transition possessions for the defense.

Otzelberger almost certainly wants to play fast, but doing so would likely highlight two of the biggest flaws with the roster. 

Adjusting to his current group of players is a good sign from Otzelberger. Conversely, Paul Weir took over New Mexico and his first three seasons they ran, ranking top 50 in tempo every year. But their defenses were terrible, never ranking in the top 175 by defensive efficiency. New Mexico was never worse than 150th in defensive efficiency in every season from 2007-08 until Weir took over.

In Otzelberger’s first season UNLV ranked 133rd in defensive efficiency, a massive leap from the 215 ranking of Marvin Menzies’ last season.

UNLV would likely look and perform worse playing faster. 

It is also important to note, playing fast is not tied to better performance. You can win while playing slow. Just looking back at the last UNLV team to win an NCAA Tournament game can prove that. 

In 2007-08 UNLV was playing slower than the current Rebel team at just 63.9 possessions per game. (They ranked 223rdin tempo because all of college basketball was playing slower.) That team was an 8 seed and lost in the round of 32. 

Ultimately, Otzelberger’s Rebels will likely be runnin’ once he feels like the roster meets his expectations. 

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