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Graney: UNLV’s basketball recruiting proves downright defensive

He desired the right parts and not just a collection of them.

The right players and not just bodies to fill a roster.

Kevin Kruger believes he found them through recruiting, a process for his UNLV basketball team that recently awarded its final scholarship.

So this is basically it, the team that will represent UNLV in Kruger’s second season as coach. He had 10 new faces last season. There are eight this time around, including seven college transfers.

This is how things work for a majority of teams in the world of a transfer portal. Reboot, retool, rebuild, hope like crazy the decisions you make work out more often than not.

“We brought in guys who have produced some and have a little bit of a resume,” Kruger said. “When we talk about bringing guys into UNLV, we want to make sure they’re going to compete and fight and want to be here.”

Defense first?

What a majority of those resumes suggest: There will be a whole lot of competing at the defensive end.

The Rebels certainly weren’t great there last season — they ranked 97th nationally in defensive efficiency — but were better in February than January and January than December and so on.

But one thing stands out as you look across those who have decided to make UNLV home. Most excelled defensively at their previous school. Accolades and everything.

Suddenly, the Rebels (at least on paper and reputations built elsewhere) somewhat resemble the Mountain West’s best defensive team. San Diego State has for some time now won more games stopping people than any other conference team.

“I think the improvement (defensively) last year was something to build on,” Kruger said. “We didn’t look at it and say, ‘This all has to change.’ We had a good starting block, so it was more like, ‘Let’s build on that.’”

Now, the hard part: Who in the world is going to score for UNLV?

Opportunity is ample. The Rebels lost their top three scorers when Bryce Hamilton (21.8) and Donovan Williams (12.7) entered the NBA draft and Royce Hamm Jr. (8.6) saw his college eligibility end.

UNLV finished 18-14. For it to take the next step and contend near the top of the Mountain West, for it to be knocking on the door of an NCAA Tournament berth, an offense not yet proven must hope enough ability exists within that new-look roster.

Maybe that comes from West Virginia transfer and former Bishop Gorman player Isaiah Cottrell. Maybe from Arizona transfer Shane Nowell. Or from Oklahoma transfer EJ Harkless. Or from returning guard Jordan McCabe.

Maybe from lots of guys.

Scoreboard matters

When his team gathered for the first time last season, Kruger saw just one player (Hamilton) who had shown himself a consistent college scorer. Nobody knew Williams would emerge to shoot 44 percent on 3s.

There always has been this sense that UNLV fans wouldn’t support a product that wasn’t scoring at a high rate. That it had to be one of running and gunning and soaring.

This is also a program that last tipped off an NCAA game in 2013. If that means several wins come in the 60s, so be it.

Fact: UNLV needs to finally again play into the second week of March, no matter how it gets there via the scoreboard.

“This is a group where we have experience and guys who have played in some big-time games and are excited to show that they can do better and take another step forward,” said Kruger, whose father, Lon, was named to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame on Wednesday. “Hopefully, we can make it all blend together.”

Just might — if the right parts were indeed collected.

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 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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