Updated November 21, 2021 - 8:56 am
It was minutes after his team’s basketball practice concluded Thursday — a long jump shot from when UNLV would face No. 4 Michigan — when Kevin Kruger sat a few rows off the Mendenhall Center court.
“As a program, they’re what we want to be like,” he said of the Wolverines. “Their culture is established. They’ve won games — Elite Eight last year, Big Ten championships. The way their staff carries themselves, their players carry themselves, is something that we want to do.
“You say you want to, but they do it on a daily basis, night-in and night-out. They’re a great example of somebody to emulate.”
The Rebels were able to gauge themselves against Michigan in a Roman Main Event semifinal Friday night at T-Mobile Arena.
For the most part and then some, UNLV held its own.
The Rebels would fall 74-61 because the Wolverines eventually imposed superior skill and length as the better team.
But if building blocks are defined by specific snapshots, we saw over 40 minutes the way Kruger has shaped his roster as a first-year college head coach.
Play hard and defend
Four games and three wins into the season, know this: UNLV plays extremely hard. That might be expected with 10 new players — who in that case doesn’t want to impress the staff? — but it’s not always assured.
Kids are different. Not each one is wired and motivated the same way.
Kruger essentially recruited a team that has length and athleticism and a desire and energy to defend, all attributes that have been lacking. It’s a major reason the Rebels have struggled to consistently contend in the Mountain West and nationally at any level.
They haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2013. It’s a different type of dry spell in Las Vegas.
“Start to finish, they played with a lot of toughness,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “They didn’t back down for one minute, and we didn’t expect them to. When we made a run, they made a 3-pointer. When we made a stop, they came back and made another 3. I’m impressed with how we dealt with a team that (plays) as hard as UNLV.
“One that competes that hard on the offensive glass, drives to the basket and is physical.”
Do you know when it’s difficult to defend? When you’re not doing much offensively. When shots aren’t falling and you’re struggling to discover any sort of rhythm.
UNLV has improved offensively in each of its four games, but it’s all relative. It’s not close to being a competent unit. Really not close in the second half of games.
Until proven otherwise, wins will be earned defensively, where UNLV continues to fight and grind and show maturity.
The next opportunity comes against Wichita State in the consolation game Sunday night at T-Mobile Arena.
Another opponent with an established culture that has been to the NCAAs in eight of the past nine years and expects to win. The sort of attitude Kruger wants from his team.
“There is really no reason not to have a standard and expectation about ourselves to be able to play in a game and compete and beat Michigan,” Kruger said late Friday night. “Not saying we’re ready to do that right now, but I don’t think with this group it’s unfair to ask and demand that of them throughout the season.
“Sometimes, we don’t maybe demand enough of them. We can demand more out of them because we think they have a chance to be really good.”
They do. They’re not yet.
But they didn’t back down from a serious heavyweight Friday, and that’s important to the journey. Four games and three wins later, UNLV plays hard and guards people.
There are far worse beginnings.
Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.