Rebels runnin’ under the radar

Kevin Kruger and UNLV are hoping for a year of growth that culminates with an NCAA Tournament bid come March.

 LAS VEGAS — Sometimes, flying under the radar can be a good thing.

UNLV’s men’s basketball team was picked to finish sixth in the Mountain West preseason poll. There’s no target on the back of Kevin Kruger and his Runnin’ Rebels. That fate falls to San Diego State, and to a lesser extent, Wyoming, which also received four first-place votes.

“We’re just trying to get better each day,” said Kruger, the son of former UNLV head coach Lon Kruger who went 18-14 (10-8 MW) in his first season. “I like the way we’re competing in practice. It’s a good group of guys.”

Yeah, that’s a lot of coach-speak. But by now, UNLV fans aren’t expecting Jerry Tarkanian-like seasons at the Thomas & Mack Center. Those days are long gone. But a return to the NCAA Tournament and perhaps win a game or two is not unreasonable and if a few things break right, maybe it happens come March.

It starts Monday night as the 2022-23 season, the school’s 65th as a program, tips off against Southern at the T&M. The non-conference schedule is far from daunting — Dayton on Nov. 15 is arguably the toughest non conference opponent — and while it likely won’t boost the program’s KenPom ranking significantly — the Rebels are No. 118 to start — it can provide it with a solid beginning and grow the team’s confidence.   

Like many programs around the country, UNLV is dealing with roster turnover and trying to build chemistry on the fly. The reason likely stems from disgruntled players fleeing to the transfer portal in search of NIL (Name-Image-Likeness) opportunities. Needles to say, a coach can find himself in reboot mode very quickly. 

In UNLV’s case, it was replacing more than 70 percent of its scoring from last year’s team which averaged 69.5 points. To that end, Kruger is hoping that Elijah (EJ) Harkless and Jackie Johnson III can fill that void while veterans like Jordan McCabe, the team’s leading returning scorer from last year at 6.4 points per game, can up his average into double figures.

Harkless, who spent two seasons at Cal State Northridge and a pair of campaigns at Oklahoma, was an all-Big 12 honorable mention selection last year and was averaging 10 points and 4.1 rebounds before he hurt his knee Feb. 15 and was done for the season. He said the knee feels fine and he likes his teammates and his new city.

“It’s a great group of guys,” he said. “Las Vegas is a great place to live. I’m very comfortable here.”

Johnson, a sophomore transfer who averaged 9.5 points at Duquesne last year. He also shot 37.3 percent from 3-point range and if UNLV is going to keep that 3-point made streak going (the Rebels have made a trey in 1,161 straight games since the 3-point line was introduced in 1986), Johnson may be the go-to guy on a lot of nights.

To try and expedite the learning process, Kruger took his team to Canada in August for three exhibition games. The team went 2-1 but more importantly, it had 13 days to prepare for the trip and it allowed the nine newcomers to get accustomed to Kruger’s system.

“Canada was big for us,” Kruger said. “The guys got to be together and we got to test ourselves against someone other than ourselves. But the practice time helped us accelerate the learning process and when you have nine new players, that’s really important.”

When you watch this team practice, you can’t help but notice the high energy level, the dedication to trying to do things the right way, the stressing of fundamentals and the symmetry between players and coaches. Remember, Kruger has an entirely new staff so he’s learning from them too.

“It’s been great so far,” said McCabe. “The new coaches are really good. I think everyone’s impressed.”

The school is trying a variety of promotions to get people to come out and watch, including a $2 beer night on select dates. But what will get the fans back is winning. If this team can compete and leave the court victorious, that will get everyone’s attention. 

Despite the fact Las Vegas has become a major league sports city, the reality is this is still a college basketball town, the caveat being when the local team is successful. That has been difficult in recent years. But Kruger knows the game, knows how to communicate with his players and the synergy within the program appears to be positive. It’s a long way to March, but here in November, there’s cause for optimism as the season tips off.

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