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Cal Basketball

What To Watch: Cal vs. UNLV

November 11, 2019

It’s been a bit of an odd start to the hoops season for Cal’s men’s team. After rolling through Pepperdine in the season opener last Tuesday (November 5), the Bears have sat idle. But that changes tomorrow with Cal playing four games in nine days between November 12 and 21. Games close together are one of the best things about college hoops and that starts up for the Bears beginning tomorrow.

First on the docket is the Runnin Rebels out of UNLV. 

UNLV Runnin Rebels

Last season: 17-14 (11-7), No. 165 in KenPom

2020 KenPom projection (current): 15-16 (8-10), No. 154

2020 Torvik projection: 15-16 (8-10), No. 151

Here are some keys to watch for in tomorrow night’s showdown with UNLV.

1) Pace

T.J. Otzelberger teams have traditionally played at a pace of at least 70-possessions-per-game and have thrived on spreading the floor with strong perimeter play and three-point shooting (more on that below). So far this season, the Runnin Rebels are averaging about 71.5-possessions-per-game. The problem with running a quick pace for Otzelberger this season? They don’t exactly have the depth to run, as their rotation is only about seven-players deep. Do the Runnin Rebels try to run? And if so, do the Bears try to counter by slowing the pace a bit?

2) Three-Point Shooting

Cal shot a ridiculous 52.6% from the three-point line in the season opener against Pepperdine. It’s highly unlikely the Bears maintain shooting from deep at that pace, but can they keep it close? Look for UNLV to key in on Matt Bradley and Kareem South, who combined to shoot 7-of-11 from deep against Pepperdine. The Bears also got help from Jacobi Gordon and Andre Kelly who combined to go 3-for-3 from thee against Pepperdine.

Meanwhile, this is the ideal strength of an Otzelberger team, but after shooting about 37% from deep against Purdue Fort Wayne in its season opener, UNLV managed just 27% on 26 attempts against Kansas State on Saturday. However, the Runnin Rebels have guarded the three-point line well, holding Purdue Fort Wayne to 27% and Kansas State to 17% from deep. Which team is able to knock down three-point shots tomorrow?

3) Keeping UNLV off the Offensive Glass

UNLV currently has an offensive rebounding rate at a ridiculous 44.3%, which is currently 14th in the nation in KenPom’s metrics. UNLV had 16 offensive rebounds on Saturday against Kansas State. The Bears have been decent at keeping teams off the offensive glass, but second-chance points and scoring opportunities for UNLV will be something to keep an eye on.

4) Turnovers

UNLV had 23 turnovers in an overtime loss to Kansas State on Saturday. Kareem South showed a strong ability to hop into passing lanes and pick the ball from Saint Martin’s. The Bears combined for four steals against Pepperdine. Can Cal ratchet up the defense and force UNLV into a couple dozen turnovers like Kansas State was able to do?

5) Containing Amauri Hardy

In our early scouting report from September, we identified Amauri Hardy as the biggest returning impact player for UNLV and so far, he hasn’t disappointed. Through two games, Hardy is averaging 21 points, 4.5 assists, and 4.5 rebounds a game. This has a very similar feel to Colbey Ross for Pepperdine as so far Hardy has been mainly surrounded by role players. Ross went off for 17 points in the first half before Cal’s defense clamped down in the second half. Mark Fox said they approached it from a team-defense mindset. Can Cal do the same against UNLV and keep Hardy in reasonable check. And if they do, does Cal also keep the other role players from stepping up?

KenPom Game Projection: 71-67, Cal 63% Win-Chance

Torvik Game Projection: 74-68, Cal 71% Win-Chance

This has a very similar feel to the Pepperdine game. KenPom and Torvik like Pepperdine more than UNLV, but it’s still pretty early for those models to help much. If Cal is able to continue hot shooting from three, turn the Runnin Rebels over, keep Hardy in check, and keep UNLV off the offensive glass, this should be another Cal win and put the Bears at 2-0 heading into a decent, but-not-great Cal Baptist team and then Prairie View A&M, which should be overly matched. This means potentially being undefeated when the Bears head to Madison Square Garden to play Duke.

From our original scouting report:


A native of Wisconsin, Otzelberger has three seasons of head coaching experience and comes from a solid coaching tree. Besides a few seasons at Washington under former Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar, Otzelberger cut his teeth as an assistant at Iowa State under Greg McDermott and Fred Hoiberg. Both McDermott and Hoiberg have been known for their prolific offenses — Hoiberg at Iowa State and McDermott at Creighton — and in his three seasons at South Dakota State, Otzelberger improved the offense each year from No. 71 in KenPom offensive efficiency ratings to No. 47 in 2018 to No. 37 last season. Overall during his three seasons, the Jackrabbits went 70-33 and played in two NCAA Tournaments.

Otzelberger-coached teams did two things exceptionally well on offense at SDSU — they shot the ball at a high percentage and didn’t turn it over — two pretty key things to a highly rated offense. Last season, its eFG% was 58.5% — good enough for second in the nation. The eFG% improved each year Otzelberger led SDSU by 5.3%. Last year, the Jackrabbits had a turnover percentage of 16.3% — 40th in the country — but the year before was 14% and third in the nation. 

Hoiberg offenses at Iowa State were infamous for spacing the floor with three-point shooting and solid wing play. While at SDSU, Otzelberger had a similar approach, especially his last season when the Jackrabbits shot 41.2% as a team from long-range. The rate was third in the nation. Similar to the overall eFG%, during Otzelberger’s three years at SDSU, the Jackrabbits improved from 35.8% from three as a team to 38.3% in 2018 to 41.2% last year. 

On defense, Otzelberger’s teams kept opponents off the offensive glass and didn’t foul much. However, they were pretty bad at forcing turnovers and mediocre at keeping teams from scoring.

Key Returning Players

Amouri Hardy, 6-2, JR., 13.1 pts, 2.5 assts, 3.0 rbds

Nick Blair, 6-5, JR., 6.3 pts, 5.3 rbds, 1.0 assts

Cheikh Mbacke Diong, 6-11, JR., 6.9 pts, 6.8 rbds, .3 assts

UNLV is going through a bit of a roster overhaul. We’ll look more into that in a bit, but they lose last season’s leading scorer (Kris Clyburn), leading rebounder (Shakur Juiston), leading passer (Noah Robotham), and leading stealer (Juiston again). They do, however, return guard Amouri Hardy, who averaged 13.1 points and 2.5 assists per game last season. Nick Blair and Cheikh Mbacke Diong also provide a bit of experience, but Otzelberger will largely be looking for role players, underclassmen, and newcomers to step up.

Key Losses

Basically just take a look at the names listed above leading in key categories. Between graduation and transfer, the Runnin’ Rebels have lost a lot of production. Throw in Joel Ntambwe and Tervell Beck, and the Rebels are losing all but one of their KenPom major or significant contributors from last season.

Key Incoming Players

Elijah Mitrou-Long, 6-1, grad transfer

Vitaliy Shibel, 6-9, grad transfer

Jonah Antonio, JUCO

Donnie Tillman, 6-7, JR.

As part of the massive roster shake-up, Otzelberger hit the transfer market hard. Next year the roster will feature six transfers, three of which will be eligible this season, and one that is currently applying for an NCAA hardship waiver. If any of the names look familiar, that’s because a couple are former Pac-12 players. Donnie Tillman, the former Utah Ute and Pac-12 six man of the year is received an NCAA hardship waiver as he left Salt Lake City citing personal reasons and his mother lives in Vegas. It was an odd off-season for Tillman, who averaged 10.5 points and 5.3 rebounds a game as a sophomore. After testing the NBA draft waters, the Utah program announced he would be returning to school only to announce his transfer a few weeks later.

Mitrou-Long comes to UNLV via Texas via Mt. St. Mary’s. After two seasons at Mt. St. Mary’s, Mitrou-Long transferred to Texas where he sat out a year per NCAA transfer rules and then played last season. Mitrou-Long averaged 5.6 points per game for the Longhorns and played in all but one game, but averaged about 18 minutes a game and saw his playing time being eaten into by younger guards on the roster.

Vitaliy Shibel could be the other familiar name for Bears fans as the Australian is transferring after two seasons at Arizona State. Last year, Shibel played in 32 games and averaged about 10 minutes and less than two points per game.

Akin to Pepperdine, this is a good opportunity for a win against an average team. The Bears are projected to win in both opening games according to Torvik. Get these two early wins, and the Bears’ could be 4-0 heading to New York City for the meaty portion of the Empire Classic.

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What To Watch: Cal vs. UNLV

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