COACH AND PROGRAM
Not since the days when Jerry Tarkanian was roaming the sideline and winning national championships has there been this much buzz about UNLV basketball in Las Vegas.
Lon Kruger enters his fifth season and he has led the Runnin’ Rebels to two consecutive Mountain West Conference Tournament titles, and two straight trips to the NCAA Tournament. The latter hasn’t happened since 1990-91, and the 1990 team won the national championship.
The 2006-07 Rebels were loaded with seniors and advanced to the Sweet 16. Last year’s squad was far less experienced and had no true center. Still, Kruger guided it to a 27-8 mark and a loss to eventual national champion Kansas, 75-56, in the second round of the NCAAs.
“Quite the standard has kind of been set the last couple of years,” Kruger said. “The group two years ago with five seniors really did a good job of stepping it up a little bit and won a couple of games in the NCAA Tournament.
UNLV Runnin’ Rebels
|Last Season||27-8 (.771)|
|Conference Record||12-4 (2nd)|
|Coach||Lon Kruger (Kansas State ’75)|
|Record At School||91-42 (4 years)|
|Career Record||409-275 (22 years)|
|RPI Last 5 years||80-93-92-10-24|
“Last year’s group was a little bit of a surprise to most people. They came right back with a very good year. I knew they would work hard, and I knew they were very unselfish. But still, to win some of the games they did, to win on the road and to play very well to get past the first round of the NCAA Tournament was a little bit of a surprise.
“But when you get an unselfish group that works hard, you always have a chance.”
The chances of getting back to the NCAA Tournament look good heading into this season as UNLV returns three starters, four other lettermen and have a couple of young centers that should provide a much-needed presence inside.
The glue that holds it all together is senior guard Wink Adams. The 6-foot Adams (#1, 16.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.5 spg) was a first-team all-conference pick last season and is one of the better players for his size in the region. He has started in 92 straight games, is third in school history in three-pointers made (169) and fifth in steals (170).
“Wink’s had a great career and I think will have a super senior year,” Kruger said. “He’s so competitive and works so hard and wants to get better. He’s at the core of everything we will do this season, and the other guys around him will benefit from that. Defenses have to give him extra attention and he doesn’t mind having that target on his back.
“There’s no question of where we want the ball to go. He’s very aggressive to score, but he also will make a good play for a teammate when he is double-teamed or if someone else is open. He understands the big picture and does a good job on both ends of the floor.”
Adams can play the point or two-guard, but during an early summer trip to Australia where the Rebels went 4-2, 6-4 sophomore Tre’Von Willis (#33) played most of the minutes at the point. Willis sat out last season after he transferred from Memphis. In Australia he averaged 15.2 points per game.
“He’s a work in progress,” Kruger said. “He’s very competitive and wants to be a good player. Time will tell how quickly that comes along.”
Willis didn’t play a ton of minutes at Memphis, but he showed flashes of his potential. He scored a career-high 12 points against Tulane and shot .368 from three-point range. Willis was a big-time scorer at Union High School in Fresno, Calif. He finished his prep career with 2,842 points, breaking the CIF Central Section scoring record. That point total was the fifth highest in state history.
Another guard Kruger is eager to see is 6-2 freshman Oscar Bellfield out of Westchester High in Los Angeles. Bellfield (#0) averaged 16 points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals last season for a 29-5 team.
One of the biggest surprises since Kruger has been at UNLV has been the development of forward Rene Rougeau (#24, 9.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.1 spg). The 6-6 guard began his career as a walk-on but is now one of the better players in the conference. Rougeau was second in the MWC in steals and seventh in rebounding a year ago.
“Rene had a great year and probably as surprising of a year as anybody in the country in terms of the impact he had on the game,” Kruger said. “He came in as an unknown.
“He can do so many things. He can score, he can slash, he can run the floor, he can defend, he’s a good rebounder, he has good enthusiasm and he’s a good team guy. He just wants to win.”
Kruger hopes 6-3 senior guard Mareceo Rutledge (#3, 3.4 ppg, 2.1 rpg) has a breakout season and thinks the potential is there. He averaged 13.3 points per game in Australia.
“He didn’t play with a lot of confidence and didn’t play as comfortable as I think he will this year,” Kruger said. “He’s very conscious and wants to do things right. Because of that he really just didn’t let it go last year.
Australia was good for him and hopefully he’ll bounce back and have a good senior year.”
Kendall Wallace (#2, 2.4 ppg) is a 6-4 sophomore guard who averaged 9.5 points in Australia and made 13 three-pointers.
Some or all of these guards need to step up to replace the loss of senior Curtis Terry (11.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.8 apg).
At 6-7, senior Joe Darger saw time last season at center because of UNLV’s lack of size. Kruger anticipates him to play more at his natural position of power forward this season. Darger (#45, 11.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg) is a solid three-point shooter at 36.8 percent.
“Joe’s been great. He’s a senior that’s had an outstanding career and a good shooter,” Kruger said. “He moved into the five at times last year and did a good job. He will be at the four this year and should be more comfortable there. He makes good shots and is always willing to take them.”
Junior-college transfer Darius Santee (#44) is a 6-8 forward Kruger expects to do a lot of the dirty work this season.
“He’s just a real, blue-collar worker,” Kruger said. “He has a good mid-range jumper, he can rebound and he’s a good defender. He’s an all-around good addition.”
Kruger describes 6-5 freshman forward DeShawn Mitchell (#15) as a player with “a ton of upside and potential,” and 6-5 Rob Ketcham (#13) was a solid practice player last season whose role could increase this season.
Mitchell played two years at famed Oak Hill Academy in Virginia and averaged 24 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks his final season.
The two new centers are 7-0 Beas Hamga and 6-10 Brice Massamba.
Hamga (#22) was recruited by several schools from power conferences and was expected to play last year before he was forced to red-shirt. He’s an intriguing prospect who hails from Cameroon but graduated from Decatur (Ill.) Christian School, where he averaged 13 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks as a senior. His wingspan of 7-5 and standing reach of 9-6 could make him a formidable obstacle in the post.
“Like a lot of big, young players he’s advanced a little more defensively in terms of rebounding and blocking shots,” Kruger said. “Offensively he’s a little later in coming.”
Massamba (#12) is also a load at 255 pounds. He’s a native of Sweden who played the last two years at Findlay College Prep in Henderson, Nev. He averaged 6.4 points and 5.2 boards last year, but showed considerable promise.
“He is a very unselfish player with a high basketball IQ and I think we have only seen a sliver of what he is capable of,” said Findlay coach Mike Peck. “I think we are going to see an unbelievable talent in Brice.”
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
UNLV is rolling again under Kruger, and its 57 wins the last two seasons ranks ninth in the country among teams that have played in the last two NCAA Tournaments.
If the frontcourt can be productive and solid, this team will once again contend for a conference title and be dangerous come tournament time. Even if the frontcourt struggles, the Rebels should win a lot of games with Adams, Rougeau and Darger leading the way as seniors.
“That’s really big and I think that’s the strength of our team — the leadership of those three guys,” Kruger said. “They have a lot invested and expectations of their teammates are high. Senior leadership is hard to replace. The guys are feeling good about what’s happening. The bar keeps being raised a bit each year, and we keep getting better.”
As a result, expectations are high for another UNLV run to the NCAA Tournament.
“People have really jumped on board and are really excited about it,” Kruger said. “The crowds have increased the last couple of years, especially, and I think will jump again this coming year. People are looking forward to it. They’ve been really supportive and making a difference in the ball games. They’ve made the Thomas & Mack a tough place to win again for opponents.
“Expectations are high. You have to be a little careful of those, of course. But it’s a goal to have people expect good things from your program. Our guys have to understand going in how tough it’s going to be. Our league returns a lot of senior starters. Everyone’s going to be better, and we have to keep getting better.”