Rebels earn an ‘A’ in chemistry

An impressive 9-0 start and a high NET Ranking has people around the nation noticing Kevin Kruger's team.

LAS VEGAS — I was watching UNLV’s basketball team practice inside the Mendenhall Center the other day and amid the usual sounds of squeaky sneakers across the floor and the rat-tat-tat of basketballs bouncing off the hardwood were squeals of joy, laughter from both players and coaches and smiles on faces. Lots of smiles.

So this is what chemistry looks and sounds like?

The Runnin’ Rebels have nine new faces and three new assistants on head coach Kevin Kruger’s staff. You would think it would take time for the team to bond, to buy in to the message, to execute and to get along with each other.

But here we are, a little over two weeks until Christmas, and UNLV is catching the nation’s attention. The Rebels are 9-0 following Wednesday’s 77-62 win over Hawaii, which was played at the 6,000-seat Dollar Loan Center in nearby Henderson in front of 4,207. They are third in the nation in turnover margin at +7.9 and are forcing an average of more than 21 a game, second-best in the country behind Morgan State, which averages 22 forced turnovers.

They were No. 39 in the NCAA’s NET Rankings Thursday, one of five Mountain West teams with a NET of 50 or better. For a team which was projected to have difficulty scoring, UNLV is averaging 79.7 points through its first nine games, which is a bit skewed since it rang up 126 against Life Pacific, which sounds like an insurance company and at times, plays like one.

“I think that time we got in the gym this summer before we went to Canada really helped us develop our team chemistry,” Kruger said. “Am I surprised? Not really. These guys genuinely like each other and they’ve all bought in from the beginning.”

As a coach, you recruit chemistry. But you never know how it’s going to play out. Sometimes it’s Kumbaya, sometimes it’s group that can’t stand the sight of each other. Usually, chemistry is something that can’t forced. It has to be organically grown, over time with much nurturing.

But this group appears to have good chemistry. The Rebels have forged their identity of being a defense-first team. And if you think that’s easy to sell to young players who are fostering dreams of playing in the NBA, it’s a challenge. But Kruger’s guys accepted the challenge and not only are they generating offense off their defense, they’re managing just fine when it becomes a half-court game.

UNLV is shooting 45.5 percent from the floor and 69.5 percent from the free-throw line. The Rebels have also gotten to the line 85 times more than their opponents, a tribute to Kruger’s schemes of spreading the floor, isolating players and getting them in position to attack and draw fouls.

“It’s a fun way to play,” said senior guard Luis Rodriguez, one of the beneficiaries of the style of play and is averaging 12.6 points, third-best behind Keshon Gilbert’s 14.4 average and EJ Harkless’ 14.0. “Everyone has totally bought in and when you’re winning, it makes it easier.”

The last time UNLV began a basketball season 9-0 was 12 years ago when Kevin’s dad Lon was the coach. They’ll look to make it 10 straight on Saturday against Washington State in front of a national television audience as part of the Las Vegas Clash doubleheader at the MGM Grand Garden, which will feature No. 10 Arizona taking on  No. 14 Indiana. You have to go back to the 1990-91 season for the last time the Rebels started the season with double-digit consecutive wins. That team went to the Final Four 34-0 before losing in the final minute to Duke in the national semifinal.

But this isn’t chasing history. The Rebels are living in the present and it’s about Saturday and winning at the Grand Garden against Washington State. The Cougars are 4-4 but are already chasing things in the Pacific 12 after an 0-2 start with losses to Oregon and Utah. UNLV doesn’t begin conference play in the Mountain West until Dec. 28 when they open against San Jose State. But everyone has circled New Year’s Eve on their basketball calendar as the Rebels will host San Diego State, the preseason favorite to win the conference. The 1 p.m. tipoff will be nationally televised on CBS and it will be the true litmus test for Kruger’s team.

However, there are still home games against San Francisco on Dec. 17 and Southern Miss Dec. 22 along with Saturday’s game with WSU to focus on to keep the early-season run going. Nobody is talking about San Diego State. Or for that matter, USF, Southern Miss or San Jose State. It’s all about singular focus on what’s next.

“This group has a really good work ethic,” Kruger said. “They show up to work every day and put in the time. We’ve been able to define roles and everyone’s accepting their roles. It’s a fun group to be around and to coach.”

As practice wrapped up, every single player climbed up to the bleachers where visitors who attended and watched were sitting. Each player came over, looked you right in the eye, said their name, shook your hand and thanked you for taking the time to come watch them. 

In my 47 years of covering college basketball, I have never seen that happen. On occasion, I’ve seen a player or a coach acknowledge a visitor after practice, but it was usually someone they knew. To have an entire team, including the coaches, come over and thank you for attending practice? Well that was a first for me. And it allowed me to leave Mendenhall Center with a smile on my face, even though I was quickly frustrated by the fencing that was blocking my path to the parking garage because of the National Finals Rodeo, forcing me to take the long way around. But how can you get mad after being around such a positive atmosphere?

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