I don’t usually play the role of a “homer” in my columns. I try to write about what I know and what I’m passionate about. Often times that ends up being the Mountain West Conference. For the record, I live in Las Vegas, went to UNLV, have a wife who went to BYU and have a rooting interest in those two teams and the MWC. Even in columns like ones where I stick up for the MWC getting squeezed by ESPN (see HERE), observe the Pac-10’s decline at the hands of the Mountain West (see HERE) or make predictions on the outcome of the NCAA tournament (see HERE), I keep the Rebels and UNLV out of it. But one thing I will not do, is stand by and watch the Rebel basketball program and coach Lon Kruger get criticized by a national columnist at CBS, especially when the Mountain West and UNLV are of the best stories of the year in NCAA basketball. So, please allow me this one opportunity to act as a “homer” and defend the program I know best.
Last night, CBS Sportsline posted a column by Gregg Doyel, one of the network’s national columnists working NCAA basketball. The article titled “UNLV’s choice not to call timeout ends its season” can be read HERE and I encourage all to do so.
In the column, Doyel rehashes the final minute of the UNLV-Northern Iowa game. In a nutshell, here is what happened in that first round matchup’s final moments:
-UNLV’s Oscar Bellfield hit a three-pointer to tie the game at 66 with 37 seconds left.
-Northern Iowa brings the ball up and runs clock with tight pressure and trapping defense from UNLV.
-With about five seconds left, the ball makes it to Ali Farokhmanesh who hits a three to put UNI up 69-66.
-Bellfield runs the ball up court and has it knocked out-of-bounds with about two seconds left.
-UNLV’s Tre’von Willis misses a three-pointer at the buzzer that wasn’t even that close and UNI wins it to advance to round two against Kansas.
Doyel identifies the fatal flaw of the Rebels to be Kruger’s ignorance in not calling at timeout following Bellfield’s converted three-point field goal. He proposes that had this been done, the Rebels would have been in better shape to win the game by setting up their defense. The Rebels played frantic defense in those final seconds, sending double teams at point guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe, trying to force him to give up the ball (Ahelegbe had scored UNI’s last eight points). Several passes went around the court, some good, some bad and some nearly forced into a turnover. Eventually the ball swung to Farokhmanesh who made the improbable three with nary a defender in sight.
Was the ball rotation poor on UNLV’s part? Yes. Did the kid make an amazing shot. Absolutely. If you told Kruger that the shot to put UNI ahead would be from 35-feet away as opposed to a drive to the hoop where a foul could be called or a mid-range jumper, I’m sure the coach would have taken those odds. And that’s what UNLV got. A frantic scramble, that Doyel infers Northern Iowa intended to have happen, followed by a crazy deep shot that went in.
Doyel postulates that had a timeout been called where Kruger and staff could set up the team’s defense, they would have undoubtedly known to get a hand in Farokhmanesh’s face. I contend that the team may have played a similar defense with or without a timeout. If pressure wasn’t thrown in the face of Ahelegbe, he would have held his dribble at midcourt until the shot clock was exhausted to five or ten seconds and then drove the basket. The Rebels’ defense got the ball moving, gave them a couple of opportunities at a turnover and forced Northern Iowa to take a shot from just inside the parking lot. I don’t see what’s wrong with that.
Furthermore, UNI had no timeouts. Had Kruger taken his final timeout it would have given him an opportunity to set up a defense but would also have given UNI the chance to design a play and get their offense ready for the final 37 seconds.
Would Doyel have criticized Kruger and the Rebs if they called a timeout and that led to a great set of back picks and an open shot? Would he declare that UNLV handed Northern Iowa the win because Kruger put the time in their hands to design a play?
Would Doyel praise UNLV for letting the flow of the game come to them had the shot from Farokhmanesh clanged off iron and been rebounded by the Rebels, leading to a game-winning shot from Willis or Bellfield?
Basketball is a game of inches and the Rebels poured their heart into a game where the last few inches belonged to the other team.
Perhaps the worst part about Doyel’s attack on the Rebels yesterday were the words he had about the UNLV program in general. He wrote:
“[UNLV] does silly stuff like let Tre’Von Willis and Chace Stanback jack 3-pointers when they can’t make them. It has defensive lapses. It loses focus, and boom! Trouble. I don’t know who to blame for it. Maybe nobody. Maybe Kruger’s choice of personnel.
Kruger has made UNLV relevant again, but he has done it by turning UNLV into Transfer U. The best three or four players on roster are from somewhere else, including leading scorer Willis (from Memphis) and No. 2 scorer Stanback (UCLA) and versatile, but injured, wing Derrick Jasper (Kentucky). Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas will become eligible next season. Terrific. More people from elsewhere. It’s not the most stable way to run a program, and when games come down to a final play, a final second, building on such an unstable foundation might be a problem.”
Wow. An “unstable” program with unstable players. Does this guy not know Lon Kruger and his track record? Kruger has won Big 10 (with Illinois), SEC (Florida) and MWC (UNLV) conference championships and finished second in the Big 12 at Kansas State in a year where he took the Wildcats to the Elite Eight. Kruger took Florida to the Final Four in 1994 and has revitalized a UNLV program where they were left for dead after Jerry Tarkanian left town, being coached by cast-offs like Rollie Massimino and Charlie Spoonhour. Kruger’s overall record at the collegiate level is 455-295.
The fact that UNLV takes transfers from other schools is both common in NCAA schools and a testimony to the type of program Kruger runs. Willis came from John Calipari’s Memphis program where he averaged 2.6 points a game as a freshman and wanted a fresh start where he could play more. He red-shirted one year and has started for the Rebels for the past two, putting him in the UNLV program for a total of three years. Stanback has a similar story. He was a freshman on the 2007-2008 UCLA Final Four team that lost to Memphis in the national semifinals. After his freshman year he too opted for a fresh start and landed in Vegas, red-shirting the 2008-09 season and playing his first year with UNLV this season. Jasper came from Kentucky the same year Stanback did, though he hadn’t played since a mid-season knee injury.
What did all these players have in common? They wanted to play basketball in a system they could excel in for a coach that has had success everywhere he’s been. The fact that they left top programs shows that the common denominator here is playing time. They wanted to be at a school where they got some run. How horrible is that?
As Doyel puts it, UNLV is now “Transfer U.” That connotation makes it a negative thing, but one could also see it as a positive since so many good players gravitate to a program where their talents can be used and they feel at home. Do we cheapen the draw of a New England Patriots squad because they get players through free agency that want to play for Bill Belichick? Do we downgrade a San Antonio Spurs team that attracts free agents for the chance to be on a contender where the players put team first? So why knock UNLV for accepting transfers that want to play ball?
An even more asinine comment is that the Rebels’ perceived erratic and “unstable” play at the end of the UNI game was a by-product of there being so many (two) transfers on the floor. Does Doyel really believe that the reason this miracle shot connected was because Chace Stanback and Tre’von Willis are transfers? Come on. Kruger runs a well-prepared team in which where you come from matters very little. Any team that makes the tournament plays smart enough and is well-coached enough to maintain a defensive set in a close game. Can we really blame this on transfer players at this point in a season? Besides, Stanback was on the bench in defensive sets because of foul trouble against UNI late in the game. So the one transfer, Willis, cost his team the game because -wait for it- he’s a transfer?
What Doyel overlooks is that UNLV also recruits players out of high school. The other three starters in the first round game against Northern Iowa (Bellfield, Anthony Marshall and Brice Massamba) were all Kruger recruits. Bench players Justin Hawkins, Kendall Wallace and Matt Shaw were also recruits brought in by the UNLV program.
I challenge Doyel to find successful programs in NCAA basketball that don’t accept top transfers from other programs. Is it better to have players that come to your school for one year prior to jolting the NBA?
Ask UCLA, USC and North Carolina how they feel about that strategy.
Doyel surely knows that NCAA tournament time is tough and that games are decided in an instant and often by plays of supernatural legend. UNLV was beaten by uch a play. They didn’t lose because of a timeout that wasn’t called or for having too many transfer players on their roster. The Rebels and the MWC are two of the biggest stories in the NCAA this year and Doyel would know that had he covered them for more than just a single game.