Updated November 26, 2020 - 4:37 pm
Strange was the best way to describe UNLV’s season opener Wednesday night.
The sea of empty seats at the Thomas & Mack Center. The cardboard cutouts placed in the stands. The artificial crowd noise pumped into the arena.
But the most bizarre thing might have been the Rebels’ performance.
UNLV, an 11½-point favorite, was stunned by Montana State 91-78 to begin coach T.J. Otzelberger’s second season. The Rebels allowed a team ranked 221st by KenPom to shoot 30 of 54 (55.6 percent) from the floor and outrebound them 30-29. UNLV trailed for about 35 minutes and never led by more than three points.
“Quite frankly, I’m embarrassed by it,” Otzelberger said. “I wish we could practice right now to get it right.”
Here are three takeaways from the loss:
1. Perimeter defense was a problem
The Rebels’ primary issue was obvious: They couldn’t get stops. And it was because they were constantly getting beat off the dribble.
UNLV started a four-guard lineup with Marvin Coleman, David Jenkins Jr., Caleb Grill and Bryce Hamilton in the hopes of speeding up the game and putting pressure on the ball. Instead, the Rebels were constantly inbounding the ball after baskets because they struggled to stay in front of the Bobcats.
Montana State finished with a 38-18 edge in points in the paint, as 5-foot-8-inch jitterbug point guard Xavier Bishop and his teammates constantly found ways into the lane. It’s why Coleman and Jenkins fouled out and Hamilton and Grill finished with three fouls.
The penetration also led to easy kick-out 3s once UNLV defenders were forced to help inside. Montana State shot 10 of 18 from 3-point range, including 7 of 11 in the first half.
“We talked about it, it felt like every timeout and every dead ball (situation),” Otzelberger said. “But, for whatever reason, we were very flat-footed. We were a step slow and were behind plays, and that put us at a deficit.”
2. Offense needs to find more cohesion
The Rebels’ offense wasn’t much better than the defense.
UNLV had a hard time stringing successful possessions together early and had trouble finding its shooting stroke. The team missed its first seven 3-point attempts before sophomore forward Moses Wood hit one with 3:22 left in the first half.
It wasn’t just the misses, either. The Rebels took questionable shots, committed offensive fouls and were sloppy with the ball. UNLV finished with as many turnovers (18) as assists (18). The team’s best play most of the night was simply giving the ball to Hamilton and watching him create.
He finished with a game-high 27 points on 10-of-19 shooting to go with eight rebounds and four assists.
“Guys have to move on penetration, and we just have to play for each other,” Coleman said. “I feel like we obviously had some first game jitters, some guys were sped up a little bit. We were taking some shots quick in the shot clock, but we’ll clean that up.”
3. This team has a long ways to go
The loss — to a team picked to finish sixth in the Big Sky Conference by the league’s coaches — laid bare the work UNLV has to do.
The Rebels are still talented. They were picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West for a reason. They’re just a ways off from realizing that potential.
Six of the nine players who saw the court were making their UNLV debut. Not all were bad — freshman Nick Blake scored 16 points in 22 minutes — but the team obviously hasn’t had time to build chemistry.
That probably won’t happen before UNLV’s next game, Monday against No. 16 North Carolina in the Maui Invitational in Asheville, North Carolina. But after Wednesday, there’s nowhere to go but up.
“We just didn’t have enough energy,” Coleman said. “I don’t know if it’s that there’s no fans. It’s a little weird, but we have to do a better job generating our own energy and just getting on to the next play. We say, ‘What’s next’ in practice with an exclamation point. We’ve got to get on to what’s next.”