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Graney: Kruger rose to challenge in 1st year as UNLV coach

There were those who didn’t want him. Didn’t believe he was ready. Didn’t think taking a chance on him was wise.

Kevin Kruger knew this. He was a beloved member of the Sweet 16 team that UNLV basketball produced in 2007. But that was a lifetime ago and didn’t mean that some fans would accept him as the one to lead all facets of the program.

They cheered him as a point guard; questioned the idea of him as a first-year head college coach.

“As a competitor, when someone doubts you, it put a little feeling in your chest,” Kruger said. “It sticks with you. A lot of people were upset with the hire, but following this program for 17-18 years, I knew there would be both sides to that coin.

“Everyone wants to be liked. But not in an ‘I told you’ kind of way. Instead, in a way to join forces and do this thing together and that I want to be your guy — I want you to be excited about us being here.”

Mission accomplished.

Foundation laid.

Perception changed

The outside perception of Kruger changed dramatically as the season wore on, his team and its 10 new faces getting progressively better as the days and weeks and months passed.

That’s not to say an 18-14 record is cause of any parade down the Las Vegas Strip. You rightly need be better than 10-8 and fifth in the Mountain West around these parts to earn a majority of approval.

Expectations remain higher than the STRAT Hotel & Casino. It’s better than the alternative.

The assumption UNLV’s program should annually exist among the league’s elite is far better than an apathetic base. The former can drive a team to succeed; the latter can destroy it.

Kruger grew tremendously as a head coach off the court as his players did on it. Lots to teach. A whole lot of concrete to smooth over and let dry.

“They were the same on March 9 at our last practice as they were June 1 when we first worked out,” Kruger said. “We knew there would be bumps and bruises and learning curves with new guys. We had days where we butted heads, but we never really hit a stretch where they didn’t want to be here or hung their heads.

“If every group could be like that, I’d be the luckiest guy in the world.”

The season has concluded but for what would be a long-shot invitation to the NIT. You never know. The Rebels played their finest ball down the stretch. That might mean something to a selection committee. Maybe the telephone rings.

More likely is that Kruger and staff have already begun building Year 2 of their vision. It will look different. Bryce Hamilton and his 1,773 career points will be gone. So will forward Royce Hamm Jr., and guard Michael Nuga.

But a nucleus of capable players return and be assured Kruger will relentlessly recruit at the prep and transfer level. College coaches live in the portal annually now.

It’s a smart move. There are always players looking for a fresh start. UNLV was loaded with them this season.

Work ahead

Kruger sipped from a water bottle while sitting on a dais Thursday, the Rebels having been bounced from the conference tournament in a quarterfinal against Wyoming. Said he didn’t want to get emotional about things. So he paused.

“Being a former player, I could not be more proud to say that I wore the same jersey that these guys wore,” Kruger said. “Because we talked from day one about having a sense of pride and a sense of ownership and making — putting a team out there that this city and the community and the alums and the athletic department would be proud of.

“I think, without a doubt, they’ve done that.”

Mission accomplished.

Foundation laid.

Much work still to be done.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. 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.

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