UNLV loses season opener to Southern as massive favorite

Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports
Kevin Kruger and the Runnin' Rebels could use a mulligan after Tuesday's abysmal performance in an 85-71 upset loss to Southern University.

LAS VEGAS—UNLV entered Wednesday’s season opener with hopes of contending for the Mountain West conference crown and ending their decade-plus NCAA tournament drought. Just hours later, the season already appears to be in dire straights as Kevin Kruger’s squad was thoroughly outclassed by a middle-of-the-pack SWAC group.

It goes without saying that if UNLV is going to look substantially worse than a middling team out of a small conference, the Mountain West will eat them alive. Forget competing in any Power Five match-ups, or against mid-major power St. Mary’s in Phoenix next month.

UNLV’s poor night started with an abysmal 3-16 first half from three-point land, but it was exacerbated by the fact that they didn’t really have any meaningful athletic edge either. For a program that has made attempted to make a point of bolstering their recruiting classes for the next half of the decade, the results that came to fruition at the Thomas and Mack Center on Wednesday night were unacceptable.

It feels a bit hyperbolic to declare the season already dead as the first game ends, but this doesn’t appear to be a team that lost because it’s fractured or in turmoil. They were just beat, easily at that, by a team that lost in the first round of the SWAC tournament last season. They were simply lethargic offensively and had no answer for Southern’s physicality and quickness on the defensive end.

Again, that’s not an acceptable reality when you are a dying power fighting to maintain national relevance.

The Runnin’ Rebels were without highly touted transfer forwards Kalib and Keylan Boone in the loss. Kalib was suspended for the season opener after receiving a DUI charge last month, while Keylan is in the midst of the eligibility appeals process with the NCAA.

Still, Kruger knew the cards he was dealt in the Boone brothers absence. It’s no excuse for what transpired on the court.

Shane Nowell and Jacob Bannarbie were also inactive for UNLV.

Isaiah Cottrell led UNLV with 18 points on 8-12 shooting, while Oklahoma transfer and Las Vegas native Jalen Hill added 12. Highly touted freshman DJ Thomas tallied 14 points, 4 rebounds, and 5 assists in his collegiate debut.

Southern was led by 20 points from Tai’Reon Joseph. Tidjiane Dioumassi added 12-5-8 for the Jaguars in the win.

UNLV looks to rebound on Saturday with another non-conference home game against Stetson. Tip-off is set for 4 p.m. PST. 1990 Final Four MOP Anderson Hunt will be honored in a halftime ceremony as his number is retired.