On April 1, 2011 drips of information about UNLV head basketball Coach Lon Kruger’s decision to leave UNLV for Oklahoma trickled out, as if they were from an unreliable faucet. After many hours of partial and misinformation (largely distrusted because Kruger himself just a few days earlier said he was staying at UNLV) it became a certainty, UNLV’s entire coaching staff was leaving. Once the shock subsided, it was common sense that replacements would be named, and the athletic director said it would be a quick process, and it was. Coach Rice was named, and he assembled a dream-team staff that embodies our championship heritage, and seeks to bring that back. Fortunately, none of Coach Kruger’s former players have decided to leave UNLV in the wake of his departure, and this is a testament to the character of the players, Coach Rice and his staff, and the reputation of UNLV.
In the landscape of college basketball, it is not unheard of and actually quite common for coaches to come and go. NCAA coaches are given a bit more latitude than NBA coaches as far as being fired quickly if they they don't produce wins, so among the 300+ division I teams, things are relatively stable.
The fallout of a coaching change, be they fired or leave under good or bad circumstances, is that the people who actually put the points on the scoreboard are left in the balance. The dynamic that plays out in college sports is one where normally the student athlete and their family are looking somewhat at the college, but a great deal at the coaching staff when the initially choose a school. The staff, which would include the head coach and his assistants normally had been recruiting that player for several years while he was in high school, playing AAU basketball, or maybe even playing internationally.
That staff has put in many hours answering questions, showing the player and his family how he would figure into his basketball offense (to a lesser extent defense), and most important to the athlete who has pro ambitions - how this staff will make him better so he can be a well-paid professional athlete. If the athlete was a transfer, they have had a similar recruitment, but obviously time wise to a much lesser extent. That said, as in the case of many UNLV players who have transferred into Lon Kruger’s program, they were people who he formally recruited out of high school – so the foundation had already been built.
Although this topic has only received passing mention by the news outlets, there would have been real danger should a significant number of players decided to transfer. UNLV has some built-in factors that could have made that danger a reality.
In terms of homegrown talent on the current UNLV roster, there is only one player who fits that category on this coming season’s roster – Anthony Marshall, a junior this season and a product of Mojave High School. Assuming that he felt that UNLV was always his best option, no matter the coaching staff, then he’s safe. There are many telling signs that he has immense loyalty to Las Vegas and UNLV, but surely we would understand if instead of Coach Rice some clown was installed by the A.D. and Regents, then Marshall might have left.
The next closest thing to a local, would be players from Findlay Prep - not locals but people who did attend high school here in Las Vegas specifically to be a part of a national powerhouse high school program. From Findlay we have Brice Massamba, a native of Sweden and Carlos Lopez, who hails from Puerto Rico. Brice Massamba is a senior this year who never redshirted, so theoretically he could have decided to transfer and have 1 year of remaining eligibility – but what’s the point of going to a new program with only one year left, that makes very little sense for Brice or for another program. Carlos Lopez is a redshirt sophomore this year, meaning he has used his redshirt as a freshman. If he were to transfer to another program he would only have two years of eligibility remaining, and would have to sit out this season.
Also in the category of next-closest-thing to a local, would be Karam Mashour. All indications is that UNLV’s good fortune of having this talented Israeli player on our roster is because his uncle lives in Las Vegas and is his United States roots. That makes it less likely that he would want to leave Las Vegas to find another program to play in. Also drawing assumptions from past actions, he was told he would have limited minutes as a freshman if he did not redshirt, but he played last year anyhow. It is less likely that he would want to ‘not-play’ this coming season by red-shirting at another program. He could have always gone back to Israel, but the basketball scenery there is uncertain, and exposure would likely be less than at UNLV.
Regarding the rest of the roster, Oscar Bellfield, Chace Stanback, and Kendall Wallace are all seniors this year. Stanback and Wallace have each already used their redshirt year (Stanback for transferring from UCLA, Wallace for injury), so transferring would be forfeiting their final year of eligibility. Bellfield never redshirted, but transferring to sit one year and then play later doesn’t make too much sense. Bellfield played more minutes than any other player last year, and he has a great thing going here.
Justin Hawkins will be a junior this year, but he could have elected to transfer, redshirt and have two years of eligibility remaining. Mike Moser has just finished sitting a redshirt year after transferring from UCLA. Although I am not fully apprised of the NCAA rule on this, theoretically, he could have elected to transfer out of UNLV to another program and played this coming season since he has already sat the year already and has not yet played for the Rebels. The same situation exists with Reggie Smith who transferred in from Marquette will be eligible in January 2012 to start playing. Since he will have sat the year, nothing prevents him from choosing another school to play ball at. Quintrell Thomas, the Kansas transfer who will be a junior this year, has already used a redshirt season getting to UNLV. Thomas would jeopardize an entire season by trying to play somewhere else.
As far as recruits who were in place under Coach Lon Kruger, shortly after the regime change Findlay Prep product Nigel Williams-Goss rescinded his verbal commitment to UNLV, stating that it was Coach Kruger that recruited him and who he was sold on, he has a lot of time to remake the decision and will still consider the Runnin’ Rebels when making that choice. Grandy Glaze was a recruit who, for was appears was a mutual decision, has chosen another school (St. Louis). The all-time Nevada high school scoring leader, Dantley Walker, was recruited by both Lon Kruger and Dave Rice, and Rice appears to be a Coach both he and his family are happy with, so his commitment was solidified.
Other familiar teams
Other teams that we know and play against have not been so lucky when it comes to coaching changes and players staying.
The Utah Utes have been an absolute disaster since they fired Jim Boylen. They hired Larry Krystkowiak and soon thereafter nearly half the team decided to transfer. J.J. O’Brien was one of the transfer players UNLV was targeting, he ended up choosing the SDSU Aztecs as his destination team. The team only returns four players from last years squad (David Foster, Chris Hines, Josh Washburn, Jiggy Watkins) and has been patched back up with JUCO and small school transfers, as well as a lot of walk-ons. They will try to compete in the Pac-12, but even living up to their 12-16 record from last year seems like a challenge under these circumstances.
The Wyoming Coyboys fired Coach Heath Schroyer (now an assistant with UNLV) ten games into last season. Interm Coach Fred Langley was not retained, and Wyoming snagged Larry Shyatt, who had been assistant to Billy Donovan with the multiple national champion Florida Gators. He’s probably the best they could do given the circumstances. Not long after the hire, Amath M'Baye, Wyoming’s best player with several years of eligibility left, decided to join Coach Kruger in Oklahoma. Wyoming has also lost Desmar Jackson to Southern Illinois.
The fact that not a single player from this year’s roster has defected is a tribute to the faith and optimism that the players have for Coach Rice and his assistant coaches. Although each player has their own circumstances that extend well off the hardwood, a Coaching staff has to be there for the players, not just for X’s and O’s but for mentorship, guidance, and security. With the change, a lot of familiar faces are gone, but none of the new faces are strangers. Talent, winning, and tradition bind the new staff and everyone is confident that the success that Coach Kruger built can be maintained and even capitalized on. All of the players and coaches should be given our sincere thanks for helping to maintain a highly successful roster that is expected to go deeper into the tournament this year.