T.J. Otzelberger is a good basketball coach.
I have a file saved on my computer with potential replacements for Eric Musselman if he ever leaves Nevada, and Otzelberger was on that list.
Granted, I have about 25 coaches on the list, but Otzelberger made the cut. He clearly knows what he's doing. But I'm not sure he's a better coach than Marvin Menzies, the man UNLV fired to hire Otzelberger this week.
Otzelberger had successful runs as an assistant coach at Iowa State (2006-10, 15-16) and Washington (2013-15) before being hired as South Dakota State's head coach three seasons ago. In those years, the Jackrabbits went 18-17, 28-7 and 24-9 with two NCAA Tournament berths while inheriting one of the most productive players in NCAA history in Mike Daum.
"Otzelberger lifted the program at South Dakota State to new heights during his three-year tenure," the UNLV press release said while announcing his hiring. That's not exactly true.
In three seasons, Otzelberger went 70-33 overall and 35-11 in the Summit League. In the three seasons prior to his hiring, South Dakota State went 69-32 overall and 34-12 in the Summit League. Nearly identical.
In his three seasons, South Dakota State's average KenPom rank was 118. In the three years prior, it was 104.7, about 11 percent better. The same trend held with the Sagarin ratings (119.3 under Otzelberger to 109 before him) and with the RPI (106.7 under Otzelberger to 86.7 before him).
This is all to say South Dakota State was a solid program before Otzelberger was hired – his predecessor Scott Nagy was the team's coach for 21 seasons, taking it from the Division II level to three NCAA tournaments in his final five seasons before leaving for Wright State – and it also was a solid program under Otzelberger. It might have been a touch worse under Otzelberger, especially on defense, but it was still good.
I'm always a little leery when a first-time coach takes over a good program (and a great player like Daum) and basically sustains the success. It's way more impressive to see a coach build something. This doesn't mean the 41-year-old Otzelberger can't build something. That's exactly what he'll have to do at UNLV. But we just haven't seen it yet, and Menzies' pre-UNLV résumé was far more impressive than that of Otzelberger.
Playing in a much more difficult conference – South Dakota State's Summit League was the sixth worst in the RPI out of 32 conferences this season – Menzies averaged 22 wins per season over nine years at New Mexico State, where he tallied just shy of 25 wins per season with four NCAA Tournament berths over his final five campaigns in Las Cruces. Menzies is a solid coach, even if he wasn't UNLV's first option three offseasons ago.
Is Otzelberger a marked improvement over Menzies? Marked enough to fire Menzies three years after he inherited a dumpster fire? Marked enough to warrant another massive roster turnover, with seven UNLV players now in the transfer portal?
Relatively new UNLV athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois apparently believes so, and she must do so passionately given Otzelberger's contract. He'll be paid $6.5 million over the next five seasons, starting at $1.1 million this season and rising to $1.5 million by his final year. It pencils out to $1.3 million a season, the most in the Mountain West. That's on top of the $975,000 buyout owed to South Dakota State. That's on top of the $800,000 to pay off Menzies contract.
The bottom line here is UNLV is super invested. While Reed-Francois has allowed Rebels football coach Tony Sanchez to continue on despite four mediocre seasons – he's 16-32 overall, 11-21 in the MW and 2-2 against Nevada with no bowl berths – she pulled the plug quickly on Menzies, who inherited an empty roster while being hired in mid-April 2016, too late to sign a quality recruiting class.
Menzies' first season was an understandable disaster, an 11-21 record and 4-14 MW mark, tied for last in the conference. UNLV improved to 20-13 and 8-10 last season and 17-14 and 11-7 this year. Those records were inflated as UNLV lightened its schedule the last two seasons. This still wasn't a good team, but given what Menzies inherited, you'd figure four seasons would be the minimum before the string was cut.
It wasn't, and when UNLV did make the move to fire Menzies, you figured the Rebels had somebody lined up, presumably somebody big. Rick Pitino was a popular rumor, although hiring him means you have the moral backbone of a chocolate eclair. There were reports linking the Rebels to Thad Matta, who would have been a huge get. Either coach would have brought big-time winning to UNLV if the Rebels found the money to hire them. They would have filled Thomas & Mack Center, which has struggled to draw in recent seasons, and returned buzz to a program that has faded as pro sports have invaded Las Vegas.
Instead, it hired Otzelberger who is getting paid like an elite mid-major coach, something he has yet to prove he is. I know this could come across as me bagging on UNLV, but that's not the case. I want UNLV to be good. Nevada wants UNLV to be good. The MW needs UNLV to be good, something it hasn't been in a while. The last time the Rebels were a top-100 KenPom team was 2014. The last time UNLV won an NCAA Tournament game was 2008. The last time UNLV won a MW title was 2000.
During his introductory press conference Thursday, Otzelberger said, "We will complete for conference titles, NCAA Tournament berths and one day for a national championship again."
And that last part is kind of the problem. A portion of the UNLV fan base still lives in the early 1990s when the Rebels had an elite program. It hasn't been that way the last three decades, with UNLV winning just one regular-season conference title since Jerry Tarkanian departed in 1991-92 (Nevada has won nine during that period). Lon Kruger won at a high level, but the fan base never seemed fully pleased with him. Dave Rice was ousted too early. Menzies wasn't given adequate time. Otzelberger will face the same pressure and immediate demands.
"We believe that we are absolutely the flagship program in this conference and we are going to raise the bar for everybody," Otzelberger said during his press conference.
That's a hard argument to make considering UNLV has won a regular-season MW title just once in the league's 20 seasons, and that came in the first year in 1999-2000 when the Rebels shared the championship with Utah with a 10-4 record.
Can Otzelberger appease the UNLV fan base and bring bodies back into Thomas & Mack with an NHL team in town, an NFL team coming next year and an NBA team likely right behind? He's getting paid like savior, and he better be one for the sake of Reed-Francois, who has tied her reputation to this move given how important the men's basketball program is to UNLV athletics.
The MW needs UNLV to be good (San Diego State and New Mexico, too). Does Otzelberger give the Rebels a better chance of reaching its lofty expectations than Menzies did? Maybe, but it's no slam dunk. And the Rebels are paying a lot of money to find out.
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.