On the run again: UNLV’s new basketball coach plans to transform the team’s playing style

Rebels Practice with New Coach

Wade Vandervort

Rebel players huddle around head coach T.J. Otzelberger at Mendenhall Center at the UNLV campus, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019.

Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019 | 2 a.m.

In the time it takes to read this sentence, T.J. Otzelberger wants UNLV to score in transition.

The Runnin’ Rebels’ new head coach is determined to play fast this season. It’s a refrain that we’ve heard from just about every coach in the program’s recent history, but Otzelberger isn’t just paying lip service to some vague, nostalgic idea of 1980s-style fast-break basketball. He’s got it down to a science.

This is modern, data-driven hoops at its most efficient—and its most exciting. How does Otzelberger plan on turning UNLV into an offensive machine? Here’s a breakdown of the analytics behind the Rebels’ new up-tempo attack.

Three seconds or less

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T.J. Otzelberger, UNLV’s new men’s basketball head coach pumps his fist during a news conference at the Thomas & Mack Center Thursday, March 28, 2019.

The action starts when the Rebels grab a defensive rebound. That’s when Otzelberger, 42, clicks his mental stopwatch and urges his players to speed up.

“Right now, we’re trying to get over halfcourt in, max, two dribbles,” Otzelberger says during a preseason practice. “Three seconds into the scoring area from the time we secure the rebound.”

If that sounds fast, it’s because it is. Really fast. Last year, Otzelberger pushed his South Dakota State team to average 74 possessions per game, which ranked 54th nationally (UNLV was 167th last season). And with the upgrade in athleticism this UNLV roster presents, he wants to hit the accelerator even harder in 2019-20.

Two point guards

One of the biggest keys to Otzelberger’s fast-paced attack will be the guys initiating it. In lieu of a traditional point guard setup, UNLV will employ a pair of natural points in the backcourt, with junior Amauri Hardy and senior Elijah Mitrou-Long assuming most of the ball-handling duties. When a big man grabs a rebound, he’ll look to Hardy or Mitrou-Long to take it from there.

Otzelberger’s system won’t differentiate which guard pushes the ball up the court; he only cares that it gets there as quickly as possible.

“If you’re going to play fast, we’re telling those guys at this point that whoever is closer to the rebound is the one who’s pushing the break,” Otzelberger says. “And if they get the rebound, they’re the one pushing the break. We’re trying to get organized early in transition to give our opponents multiple looks, and I think either guy can bring the ball up.”

Early offense

South Dakota State ranked 29th in the country in transition efficiency last year, averaging 1.126 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports data. The Jackrabbits did it not just by hunting for fast-break layups, but by embracing open-court 3-pointers.

UNLV doesn’t have as many superlative shooters as that SDSU squad, which ranked third nationally in 3-point accuracy (40.8%), but the idea will be the same. If a Runnin’ Rebel gets open from beyond the arc—even in transition—he’ll let it fly.

So when UNLV runs a 3-on-2 break, players like junior guard Jonah Antonio and junior forward Donnie Tillman are just as likely to flare to the corner or wing for jumpers as they are to race toward the basket for dunks and layups. It’s not a bug—it’s a feature of Otzelberger’s offense, and it’s proven to work.

Secondary break

The strategy of attacking before the defense gets set isn’t limited to the fast break. Otzelberger is a big believer in the “secondary break,” and wants his team to generate most of its shot attempts in the shot clock’s first 10 seconds.

That’s why Otzelberger is coaching his team to get across halfcourt using two dribbles or fewer, and why he wants the ball advanced to the 3-point line in three seconds or less. The data says the most efficient scoring opportunities occur within the shot clock’s first 10 seconds, so the Rebels’ game plan is to race ahead for transition looks, and if those are closed off, regroup and execute a quick-hitting play that gets them a good shot within those 10 seconds.

In a recent intrasquad scrimmage, 44 of UNLV’s 98 possessions ended with shot attempts within the shot clock’s first 10 seconds. When the season begins, Otzelberger wants that ratio even higher.

“To me, the best time to score the ball is before the defense is set,” Otzelberger says. “In order to do that, you have to be in great physical shape, you have to be in great mental shape and you have to be committed to sprinting the floor every possession.”

Halfcourt offense

Otzelberger wants buckets and he wants them fast, but failing a quick score, he wants his team to work each and every possession to the very end.

South Dakota’s halfcourt offense was even better than its transition offense last season, when its 1.042 points per possession ranked third in the nation. Otzelberger’s strategy is based on shooting when the defense is out of position, and statistically, that’s most common within the shot clock’s first 10 seconds. It’s second-most common at the end of the shot clock.

Once transition has been denied and the defense is set, Otzelberger has a series of rules and guidelines for his offense to follow—at least three ball reversals, at least one paint touch, etc.—that are designed to stretch and warp the defense to produce a wide-open shot.

“I think any successful offense in the halfcourt has to start with your intent to want to move the basketball,” Otzelberger says. “It comes down to ball movement, player movement. I think at times, offenses become stagnant with over-dribbling. We want to be a team that’s passing, cutting and moving, making the defense shift sides of the floor as quickly as possible so we can keep that pace and flow going, and keep the defense on their heels.”

The numbers support Otzelberger’s philosophy. In a recent practice, UNLV scored 0.7 points per possession during the shot clock’s middle 10 seconds and 1.571 points per possession during its final 10 seconds.

The Rebels’ pieces might not exactly fit the system yet, since much of the roster was recruited to play in former coach Marvin Menzies’ post-heavy scheme. But the hope is that with the Rebels’ wider recruiting base, an upgrade in talent will eventually mold Otzelberger’s offensive vision into a blur of dunks and 3s and points, all culminating in a joyous return to the NCAA Tournament.

“I believe it’s a group that can play fast and get up and down and be successful,” Otzelberger says. “So whatever’s happened in the past or what pretense they were recruited under or style of play, we’re not going to spend a whole lot of time thinking about. We’re just going to do what we can going forward and we’re going to get up and down.”

This story originally appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.