Tuesday, June 23, 2015 | 2 a.m.
Mercer coach Bob Hoffman limited where senior guard Ike Nwamu could look to play his final season, and without the ability to gauge teams’ interest first, Nwamu had to submit a list, see which programs got crossed off and hope he liked some that remained. Nwamu didn’t know much about UNLV other than the national championship team, but he liked the style of play he saw on film and, most important, the Rebels made the cut.
UNLV assistant coach Todd Simon reached out and started the process that would lead to Nwamu committing on May 2 over UNR and Pitt, but talking Monday after his debut in the Desert Reign Pro City League at Canarelli Middle School, Nwamu seemed most sold on fitting into that style.
“They typically like to get out and run and play hard defensively to get out in transition,” Nwamu said. “It’s kind of free-flowing.”
Nearly every recruit the past four seasons has offered some version of the same description, an impressive bit of salesmanship from the staff considering UNLV’s offense has slowed down each of the past four years.
In coach Dave Rice’s first season the Rebels averaged 15 seconds per offensive possession, the seventh fastest in the country, according to kenpom.com. That average has increased at least a second each season since then, with last year’s squad averaging 18.8 seconds per possession, the 225th fastest in the country.
However, more important than what’s transpired is what’s to come, and sophomore guard Jordan Cornish said that includes a different system at both ends.
“A whole lot faster offense and picking up full court,” Cornish said.
Rice said a couple of years ago that he would no longer promise specific style elements like a full-court press, but that has gone by the wayside this offseason. He’s dusted off the uptempo talking points and the players are in full support, with Cornish saying a lot of focus in workouts in the Mendenhall Center is kick-starting things the second the ball is rebounded or inbounded.
“We all push it, no looking for the point guard,” he said.
At Desert Reign, Cornish and Nwamu were playing on the United Way of Southern Nevada team alongside guys like former Rebel Justin Hawkins and incoming Arizona freshman Ray Smith. On the bench was UNLV junior forward Ben Carter, who’s recovering from a back procedure.
For fans this was a chance for a first glance of Nwamu, who averaged 15.1 points per game for Mercer last season, and for a look at a slimmer version of Cornish, who said he’s lost about 15 pounds since January. The diet isn’t anything revolutionary — yes to lean meats and veggies, no to red meat and fried foods — and Cornish said he could feel the difference in his endurance and even his first step.
“I want to be quicker like I was in high school,” Cornish said.
If the Rebels are going to follow through on this tempo reversal, then quicker is better, especially with so much competition for minutes. Two other current Rebels — sophomore forward Dwayne Morgan and junior guard Daquan Cook, who left after apparently getting a tooth knocked out — played in the second game of Desert Reign, which picks up again Wednesday, July 1, and none of the current 12 scholarship players are obvious redshirt candidates.
The rotation will sort itself out, as these things do, but right now roles are anything but certain. Even though he’s got just one year left that’s OK with Nwamu, because when he was looking for a destination the Rebels told him they play fast and like a family that cares only about winning. So far he feels like that’s what he’s found.
“It’s everything I wanted in a program,” Nwamu said.