Wins over Boise State and New Mexico prove UNLV is capable foe in conference

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UNLV has put a nightmare non-conference slate behind them and has proven to be a legitimate threat in conference play by standing tall against a gauntlet of top Mountain West teams.

When the non-conference schedule concluded, there was rightfully little optimism regarding UNLV’s formidability in conference play. For good reason. 

Double digit losses to Southern and Richmond, combined with a close loss against Loyola-Marymount and a too-close-for-comfort win against lowly Akron had Kevin Kruger on a seat approaching the temperature of hell.  Ending the non-conference slate with two games against non-NCAA opponents Carroll and Bethesda did little to quiet the doubters.

In a time where many young, inexperienced coaches would crumble, 40-year-old Kevin Kruger has galvanized his team and helped rally them to a far better start in conference play than anyone would have imagined just a few weeks ago. 

“It’s just been one of those seasons so far, when whatever can go wrong has kind of found a way,” Kruger told the media after the win at Boise State. “But to see that ball go in, they deserve it. They deserve to have a big road victory, especially off the bounce-back from Saturday.”

UNLV is Kruger’s first head coaching job at any level. The son of renowned former UNLV and Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, the star point guard of UNLV’s 2007 Sweet 16 team was tabbed as the chosen son by the program and given the keys with the hope that one of their own could be the one to right the ship. 

Perhaps the fact that he was connected to UNLV’s last great high in the NCAA tournament set expectations a bit too high to start. In today’s culture of instant fulfillment, his lack of early success combined with his inexperience has led many fans and media to call for his job in favor of a bigger fish. And don’t get me wrong, there has been times where I’ve absolutely thought the same. 

However, Kruger should also be given his fair share of credit for the way the Runnin’ Rebels have responded to a brutal schedule to start conference play. Doubly so for how the responded on Tuesday night in Boise, ending the Broncos nation-long home winning streak at 22 games despite suffering an unfathomable heartbreak in their attempt to end Utah State’s nation-long overall winning streak on Saturday.

The end of the Boise game was shaping up to be eerily similar to Saturday’s heartbreak. The Broncos were also pushing the ball up the court, down four points on their last possession. This time, the three-pointer rimmed out and no chaotic foul call was made. The Runnin’ Rebels survived.

It’s rare that the very next game after such a brutal loss will give you so many parallels. It’s a situation that very well could have made a group with less resolve crumble. It’s a testament to Kevin Kruger and his players that they were able to complete the winning effort in a tough Boise environment on Tuesday night. 

The players, of course, also deserve the credit. They’ve remained locked in and are determined to be an NCAA tournament bid-stealer. Even if their at large bid probably died after the loss to Southern on opening night. 

Sure, injuries and lack of player availability did affect UNLV to start the season. You’d be blind to suggest otherwise after seeing the way the team has played with Keylan Boone in the lineup and with Rob Whaley emerging as a key scoring threat. 

Still, the aforementioned non-conference duds were inexcusable results. In the era of the transfer portal and player freedom, a lot of players would have checked out and planned their exit. Especially in a situation as dire as UNLV’s appeared just a few weeks ago.

And yet, none of that has been apparent with this Runnin’ Rebels group. Not for a second. Each key player has bought in and is playing better in their role or are simply in a more compatible role than they were a few weeks ago. 

It was probably hard for Kevin Kruger to limit the role of Isiah Cottrell, but the emergence of Rob Whaley in the wake of that has completely changed the outlook of the team. Making that move as a coach also shows that Kruger is becoming more mature and less timid in his role. 

Whaley backed up his coach’s decision to trust him with more playing time in Boise on Wednesday night. He surpassed his career high with 13 first half points and finished with 18 in the win for the Runnin’ Rebels. His emergence as another capable scorer in the post adds a whole new dimension to UNLV’s offense.

UNLV sits at 2-2 in conference play, although any neutral onlooker who saw Saturday’s ending against Utah State knows that record should be 3-1. The top-of-the-Mountain West gauntlet that UNLV was faced with to start conference play wraps up Friday with arguably the tallest task of all. A road trip to Fort Collins to face the Rams of Colorado State. 

Games against Air Force, San Jose State, Fresno State and Wyoming should be a slight breath of fresh air for UNLV. At least after they were faced with a five-game gauntlet of San Diego State, New Mexico, Utah State, Boise State and Colorado State to start conference play. If you don’t follow the Mountain West so intently, those will be the top five finishers in the conference.

UNLV has no chance of making the tournament as an at-large team. The disaster of the non-conference slate for them is just going to be too much to overcome. However, they’ve also proven to be a legitimate threat to steal a bid by winning the Mountain West Conference Tournament. It’s entirely likely that one or more of those top five teams will meet UNLV in the conference tournament with their own at-large hopes in the balance. 

Can they play spoiler? Or even bid-stealer? Those are the pressing questions for the remainder of this basketball year for the Runnin’ Rebels. We’ll see how Kruger and the group answers them.