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UNLV men’s basketball team finds ways to bond virtually

Updated November 24, 2020 - 5:31 pm

Pushups, situps and a Kobe Bryant book.

Those are just a few of the ways the UNLV men’s basketball team bonded virtually this offseason during the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus ensured that the players couldn’t learn and develop chemistry together during normal summer workouts.

Instead, a roster with 11 newcomers and eight players who have never played Division I college basketball was forced to get creative when it came to building camaraderie. The fruits of the Rebels’ efforts will first show themselves during their season opener against Montana State at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Thomas & Mack Center. No fans will be allowed because of the pandemic.

If UNLV wants to live up to its potential — it was picked to finish fourth in the 11-team Mountain West — it will have to come together quickly.

“We did a good job of connecting with each other through Zoom calls, FaceTime,” junior point guard Marvin Coleman said. “Certain things that when we weren’t together, we communicated as much as possible because … we didn’t want to be a step behind.”

The roster already has been revamped under second-year coach T.J. Otzelberger. The Rebels had no freshmen a year ago and four seniors. Now, seven freshmen are on the team, and forward Mbacke Diong is the only returning senior.

It’s enough to give anyone paying attention whiplash. Not to mention the players, who had to learn a bunch of new names and personalities despite not being able to get on the court much of the offseason.

Electronic get-togethers replaced group workouts. Team meetings and players-only chats took place over screens. Virtual pushup and situp contests pitted returning players against the newcomers. Players also read Kobe Bryant’s book, “The Mamba Mentality: The Way I Play,” for inspiration.

The activities helped the team share some experiences before it finally got on the court. That helped make things much smoother when the Rebels started practicing.

“It was an easy transition when everybody was here,” Diong said. “We already had a little bit of the groove of everybody knowing everybody.”

The work is far from finished, however. UNLV will be a work in progress as it revamps much of its rotation on the fly. Transfer David Jenkins Jr., the Mountain West preseason newcomer of the year, is expected to become an immediate contributor with his lethal outside shot. Transfers Moses Wood and Caleb Grill should make an immediate impact, and junior college forward Edoardo Del Cadia should provide frontcourt depth.

Among the freshmen, Las Vegan Nick Blake, the conference preseason freshman of the year, and forward Devin Tillis are considered two potential immediate contributors. That’s a lot of new faces surrounding returning starters Coleman, Diong and junior guard Bryce Hamilton.

Otzelberger said the newcomers are probably behind where he would like them to be because of the lack of summer workouts. But his team did all it could to bond.

“It’s going to be a different year for us, but we’re ready for the challenge,” Hamilton said. “We’re just ready to adapt.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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