COACH AND PROGRAM
Entering the 1991 Final Four, UNLV was on top of the college basketball world. Famed coach Jerry Tarkanian led his team to the 1990 national championship and took an undefeated squad some believed to be among the best in history to the 1991 Final Four. The Runnin' Rebels were stunned by Duke in the semifinals and a year later Tarkanian left with the NCAA nip-ping at his heels.
The Rebels quickly went from a national power to being a good program playing in a non-power conference that existed on the fringe of national relevance. The university did everything it could do to return to its former glory, hiring old coaches -- Rollie Massimino and Charlie Spoonhour -- and promising new ones -- Bill Bayno -- to no avail.
When Lon Kruger arrived in Las Vegas in 2004 he was by no means a newcomer -- UNLV was his fifth NCAA head coaching gig and he was coming off a two-plus year run with the At-lanta Hawks -- but he was only 51. He proved to be the perfect hire.
After a pair of 17-win seasons, Kruger returned the Runnin' Rebels to the national stage courtesy of a stirring late-season run. UNLV won nine straight, including the Mountain West Tour-nament in front of a home crowd, and advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1991. The team finished with 30 wins, was ranked 14th in the nation, and only a 76-72 loss to Oregon in the St. Louis Region semifinals prevented it from a deeper run.
While the Rebels returned to glory on the court, they narrowly avoided tragedy off of it. Kruger underwent an annual stress test and it revealed abnormalities that led to a six-bypass, four-hour open-heart surgery in early August.
Kruger was back in the office less than a week after surgery but he said he was going to heed the doctor's advice to ease back into his schedule.
Kruger, who received a five-year contract extension in June, will be on the floor when practice opens in October but he will likely lean on his assistants a little more than usual.
''I'm doing great,'' Kruger said in late August. ''[We were] lucky to catch it all when we did. The recovery is going great and I'm looking forward to the year ahead & Hopefully it makes you appreciate things a little more and the opportunity we have. I feel fortunate to line up and do what I do.''
When Kruger takes the floor in October, he will see a lot of unfamiliar faces. The Runnin' Rebels graduated five seniors, all of whom were major contributors. Among the departed are first-team all-conference selection Wendell White, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, Kevin Kruger, the coach's son and a third-team all-conference selection, and Joel Anthony, the reserve who was chosen MWC Defensive Player of the Year after averaging three blocks per game.
But the Rebels aren't ready to write the 2007-08 season off to rebuilding, not with the presence of 6-0 junior Wink Adams (13.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.5 spg), one of the MWC's most dynamic players. The team's second leading scorer last year, Adams, a shooting guard, will be its unquestioned star this season.
The lightning quick Adams spearheaded UNLV's stingy perimeter defense last season, hounding opposing guards into turnovers the Rebels offense turned into easy baskets.
Offensively, Adams, a second team All-MWC selection a season ago, will need to be more efficient. He shot just 40 percent from the floor and 33 percent from three-point range a season ago and committed a team-high 71 turnovers. Though his shooting can be erratic, Adams is never more than a bucket from getting hot. In a late January home game against San Diego State when UNLV was playing without White and Kevin Kruger, he was held scoreless in the first half only to net 20 in the second, carrying UNLV to a crucial win.
Blue Ribbon Previews
''Wink's had two really good years, and now as a junior, as much as he improved last year, he needs to make that same progress again this year,'' Kruger said. ''He's a scorer. We need him to score. He sets the tone defensively. He's a tough competitor. Leadership-wise, he's the one the others look to. He has a lot of things he is responsible for.''
Marcus Lawrence (1.4 ppg, 2.1 apg, 1.7 rpg, 1.0 spg), a 5-11 sophomore, is the frontrunner to take over for Kevin Kruger at the point. Lawrence showed promise, playing in all 37 games and starting seven times. The Runnin' Rebels went 6-1 in Lawrence's seven starts, beating BYU and San Diego State along the way.
Lawrence did an excellent job handling the basketball, finishing with a 2.5-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. He actually had more steals (35) than he had turnovers (31). What Lawrence has to prove is that he can make opponents respect his shot. He made just 30 percent of his field-goal attempts and 13 percent of his three-pointers.
Junior college transfer Mareceo Rutledge (Sacramento, Calif./Yuba College), a 6-3 junior, will figure into the backcourt rotation as well. Rutledge averaged 19.0 points and 7.5 rebounds as a sophomore at Yuba, numbers that were down from his freshman season. In his first year as a collegian, he set new Yuba single-season records for three-pointers (119) and points scored (772).
Freshman Kendall Wallace (Mesa, Ariz./Mountain View High School), who led Mountain View to three consecutive state titles, graduated as the school's all-time leader in points (1,392), assists (447) and steals (202). The 6-4 Wallace can play either guard position and should have a bright future in Vegas.
Scott Hoffman (1.0 ppg), a 6-3 sophomore, will provide depth. Tre'Von Willis, a 6-4 guard from Memphis, transferred to UNLV as well. Willis, who will be sophomore next season when he gains his eligibility, averaged 2.6 points and 1.0 rebounds as a freshman at Memphis.
The Runnin' Rebels will have an abundance of forwards, including the team's only two seniors, 6-5 Corey Bailey (2.8 ppg, 1.0 rpg) and 6-5 Curtis Terry (4.5 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 1.7 apg). A transfer from Butler (Kansas) Community College, Bailey had an understandably difficult time earning minutes last season, but he averaged 17.5 points as a sophomore at Butler.
Though he didn't shoot much last season, Bailey converted often when he did, making 58.5 percent of his field-goal attempts, including 8-of-13 three-pointers. But he was miserable at the free-throw line, missing 15-of-24 attempts. Whether he is starting or coming off the bench, Bailey should average more than 9.8 minutes he saw last year.
Terry is a four-year player who saw his minutes reduced last season. He has played in all 98 games during his UNLV career and averaged 7.4 points as a sophomore when he started 25-of-30 contests. Terry is a good distributor of the basketball (152 career assists) but he will need to improve on his career 37.5 percent shooting percentage. With his experience, expect him to be a rotation regular
Joe Darger (6.0 ppg, 1.9 rpg .439 3PT), a 6-7 junior, is the team's best returning three-point shooter. Darger made multiple three-pointers 14 times last season. The only drawback in Dar-ger's game is its lack of diversity. He had three times as many three-pointers (47) and he did assists (15) and he didn't have that many more rebounds (64).
Kruger had the luxury of red-shirting 6-5 Troy Cage, and 6-8 sophomore Lamar Roberson, sat out last season after transferring from Houston. Both are skilled players but will have a lot of competition to earn minutes. Roberson averaged 5.1 points and 2.1 rebounds for the Cougars in 2005-06.
Rene Rougeau (1.5 ppg, 1.0 rpg), a 6-6 junior, and 6-8 sophomore Matt Shaw (1.3 ppg, 0.9 rpg) also hope to earn time.
One of the keys to UNLV's success last season was the shot blocking ability of Anthony and Gaston Essengue in the middle. While both have graduated, Kruger and his staff added one of UNLV's most heralded recruits in years. Riding the momentum of the Sweet 16 appearance, the Runnin' Rebels signed Beas Hamga (Douala, Cameroon/Decatur [Ill.] Christian High School), a 7-0 freshman, in the late signing period. But by mid-September, Hamga's academic work in his native country had yet to be approved by the NCAA Clearinghouse, leaving him in limbo, unable to enroll in school. A five-star recruit according to Rivals.com, Hamga was the fifth-ranked center and the 26th player overall in the class of 2007. He chose UNLV over offers from the likes of Kentucky and Indiana, and he should contribute immediately. Hamga, who averaged 13 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks as a senior at Decatur Christian, has a wingspan of 7-feet-5, and a standing reach of 9-feet-6.
If Hamga is eligible, he will be joined in the middle by Emmanuel Adeife, a 6-10 junior transfer from Polk (Fla.) Community College. Adeife, who played in 12 games as a freshman at Houston, averaged 13.5 points, 10.0 rebounds and 5.0 blocks per game as a sophomore at Polk. The combination of Hamga and Adeife won't be as immediately intimidating as Essengue and Anthony, but the two newcomers will be a detriment to opponents thinking of driving the lane.
Other than Adams, UNLV has a lot of questions entering the season, but Kruger likes his team's talent. ''We have young talent,'' Kruger said. ''I like our talent level, but when it's young you don't really know what to expect.''
UNLV won't win 30 games, and a return to the Sweet 16 is highly unlikely, but Kruger and Adams guarantee that the Runnin' Rebels will be competitive. Health permitting, and in late summer it apparently was, Kruger will be on the sideline, and his track record -- 10 NCAA appearances, including the 1994 Final Four with Florida -- speaks for itself.
Adams is one of the league's most dynamic players and now he will be called upon to lead. How good UNLV will be depends on who steps up around Adams. The Runnin' Rebels have enough options at forward to believe they will get solid production, though who from remains a mystery. Hamga and Adeife offer great promise in the middle.
With so many new faces, it will be difficult for UNLV to assemble an at-large quality resume, but this team will be competitive. And don't forget, the MWC Tournament is again in Las Vegas.
UNLV Runnin' Rebels
Last Season 30-7 (.811)
Conference Record 12-4 (2nd)
Starters Lost/Returning 4/1
Coach Lon Kruger (Kansas State '75)
Record At School 64-34 (3 years)
Career Record 382-267 (21 years)
RPI Last 5 years 48-88-92-93-11
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS