Last year, Lon Kruger guided the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels to 21 wins and a berth in a postseason tournament.
The players, fans, and the Las Vegas community were bitterly disappointed.
Once again, expectations are high. Despite the loss of three of their top four scorers (Wink Adams, Joe Darger, and Rene Rougeau), Rebel fans are confident the team is talented enough to excel.
While the Rebels are clearly capable of competing for the MWC championship, they enter the year with plenty of question marks.
Last season, the Rebels were done in by a lack of size, leadership, and consistent offensive production. Their improvement in those three areas will determine how far this team can go, in the conference and in March.
Size does matter
Barring a rash of injuries, size will not be an issue. The real question is whether Kruger can use the increase in size to achieve an increase in production.
Rebel fans who had grown tired of watching gutsy SF Joe Darger get battered and bruised by opposing big men will be relieved to see more traditional big men under the basket.
6'8" PF Matt Shaw returns from a knee injury that forced him to redshirt last season. Like Darger, Shaw is dangerous from the three point arc, but has the size to hold his own closer to the rim.
Lon Kruger is also optimistic that freshman Carlos Lopez can make an immediate impact. Lopez is long (6'11"), skilled, and athletic. If the Rebels are looking to play an up tempo style, Lopez might be the best fit. (More on that later.)
Sophomore Brice Massamba struggled with conditioning and played mostly below the rim as a freshman, but has fans buzzing with his progress. The stout Swede has dropped 40 pounds in the offseason and is hopeful his slim new physique will pay dividends on the court.
Darris Santee played in 30 games last year, but looks to be facing an uphill battle for playing time this year.
To compete in the MWC, the Rebels need someone to fill the void in the middle. Shaw and Massamba (or both) are the most likely candidates. Lopez is the X-factor.
Without consistent production inside, at both ends of the floor, the Rebels won’t finish at the top of the conference.
Take the lead
The UNLV roster is a melting pot of talent. Players hail from as far off as Puerto Rico and Sweden. Current players have made stops at Kentucky, UCLA, Memphis, Kansas, Arizona State, and Iowa State before finding a home with the Rebels.
Perhaps the biggest question for the upcoming year is whether or not the hodgepodge of talent can pull it all together.
Throughout his coaching career, Lon Kruger has established a reputation for getting the most out of his players.
Last year, he didn’t.
Ultimately the Rebels lost too many close games. With the game on the line, no one consistently stepped up and led the team to victory. Perhaps they lacked chemistry; perhaps they lacked trust. Perhaps they were just unlucky.
Whatever the reason, it has to change.
The Rebels hope Derrick Jasper is the answer.
Jasper has yet to play in an official game for UNLV, having sat out last year after transferring from Kentucky. However, this is unquestionably his team.
Jasper will be the leader, the quarterback, the pacesetter, and the man with the ball in his hands with the game on the line.
At 6'6", and with explosive athleticism, Jasper has the physical ability to take over a game. At times, he will physically dominate the opposing point guard, muscling into the paint on offense and smothering the ball on defense.
Can he do so consistently?
Can he shoot?
Can he make clutch free throws in the waning moments of a close game?
If he does, Jasper will not only be a candidate for MWC Newcomer of the year, he’ll be a legitimate candidate for MWC Player of the Year.
A little help please
Fellow transfer Chace Stanback and returnee Tre’Von Willis will help Jasper shoulder the leadership load.
Willis is a fiery competitor and a terrific scorer. With Jasper running the point this year, Willis will play more frequently at his natural position in the back-court. Playing off the ball, his teammates will be looking to set him up to score. He could easily lead the team in point production.
Stanback is smooth, versatile, and athletic. On defense, he can frustrate with his quickness and infuriate with his length. On offense, he can play inside or outside; spot up, penetrate, or finish at the rim.
He will be a matchup nightmare for the rest of the MWC.
Are they in slow motion?
Last year, the “Runnin” Rebels failed to live up to their nickname. The team’s style was methodical and deliberate, and at times difficult to watch.
UNLV eclipsed 80 points just five times last year.
In the final regular season game, a home contest against Air Force, the “Grinding” Rebels churned out a painful 46-43 victory, in front of a stupefied crowd.
It was like watching two sloths fight over the last leaf on a tree.
Those days are gone.
Early indications are that Kruger will crank up the tempo for this team. It won’t take long for an array of transition dunks, threes, and quick, easy points to infect Las Vegas with Runnin Rebel fever.
This is the biggest, fastest, strongest, most athletic team Kruger has had at UNLV.
The aforementioned Jasper, Stanback, Willis trio are all at their best in transition. All three handle the ball well and are explosive finishers at the rim.
Sophomore PG Oscar Bellfield is equally dangerous in the open floor. He has demonstrated the ability to take it coast to coast and finish, and is a great decision maker and distributor.
Junior sharpshooter Kendall Wallace is lethal in transition from beyond the three point line.
If Carlos Lopez can make the adjustment to the college game smoothly, he will have a major impact. Lopez’ talents make him an ideal big man for an up tempo team. He can block shots. He runs the floor extremely well. He is skilled enough to catch and finish on the fast break.
Massamba and Shaw are also capable of success in a frenetic style of play if Lopez isn’t ready to contribute.
Kruger’s calling card has always been stifling, pressure defense. He wants his team to harass the opposition, force turnovers, and create easy offense.
After rebounds, blocks, turnovers, and perhaps even made baskets, the Rebels will be Runnin’.
So basically what you're saying is
With all the new parts and pieces at his disposal, Kruger will undoubtedly tinker with lineups and combinations. The Rebels are talented, but it will take time for them to click.
Fans can expect some struggles in the early part of the schedule. There are opportunities for quality non-conference wins, and the Rebels will notch a few. Eventually, Kruger will help the Rebels hit their stride, and when they do, they will be dangerous.
Despite some ups and some downs, UNLV will finish strong and earn a berth in the NCAA tournament.
Projected starting lineup:
G: Derrick Jasper 6’6”
G: Oscar Bellfield 6’2”
G: Tre‘Von Willis 6’4”
F: Chace Stanback 6’8”
F: Matt Shaw 6’8”
Projected record: 27-7 (12-4)
MWC Tournament Champions
· 2010 Schedule/Results
DATE OPPONENT TIME/RESULT
11/14 PITT 10:00 PM
11/18 NEV 10:30 PM
11/21 SIU 10:00 PM
11/25 HC 10:00 PM
11/28 UL 4:00 PM
12/02 @ ARIZ TBA
12/05 @ SCU 10:00 PM
12/12 KSU 7:00 PM
12/15 @ SUU 9:00 PM
12/16 SCUS 10:00 PM
12/17 WEB 10:00 PM
12/19 SCUS 10:00 PM
12/22 SMU 10:30 PM
1/06 @ BYU 10:00 PM
1/09 @ UNM 4:00 PM
DATE OPPONENT TIME/RESULT
1/13 SDSU 10:00 PM
1/16 UTAH 10:00 PM
1/20 @ CSU 10:00 PM
1/23 @ TCU 6:00 PM
1/26 AFA 10:30 PM
2/03 @ WYO 10:00 PM
2/06 BYU 4:00 PM
2/09 UNM 11:00 PM
2/10 UNM 11:00 PM
2/13 @ SDSU 4:00 PM
2/17 @ UTAH 10:00 PM
2/20 CSU 6:00 PM
2/24 TCU 11:00 PM
2/27 @ AFA 3:30 PM
3/06 WYO 4:00 PM