Even with the cancelled NCAA Tournament, UNLV was set to miss the tournament for the seventh straight year. In fact, UNLV has not won an NCAA Tournament game since 2008 when they beat Kent State in the first round. And the year prior, they went to the Sweet 16, the first time an UNLV team had advanced to the Sweet 16 since Jerry Tarkanian was the coach.
Speaking of coaches, the UNLV coach who got them to the Sweet 16 and their last tournament win, along with a pair of conference championships was Lon Kruger. He spent seven seasons as the head coach of the Runnin’ Rebels. He compiled a 161-71 record, with six postseason tournaments (four times in the NCAA and twice in the NIT) and won two Mountain West Conference Tournament Championships.
Ultimately, Kruger left because Oklahoma gave him an offer he could not refuse, which means more money. Not only would Kruger be making double his UNLV salary when he accepted the job, but he would get more money for his assistants. The Sooners were persistent in pursuing Kruger, who at the time had taken four different programs to the NCAA Tournament, and eventually he said yes.
Since Kruger departed, UNLV made the NCAA Tournament twice, but were unable to win and advance. And the program has not made a postseason tournament since 2013. The Rebels have had five, including Chris Beard, different head coaches since Kruger departed. Currently, T.J. Otzelbeger has created interest in the program after a solid first season, but the team still finished 17-15 and lost in the first round of the Mountain West Tournament.
This past Friday, UNLV Athletics held a stream of the 2007 Mountain West Tournament Championship Game where UNLV defeated BYU 78-70 and went to the Sweet 16, which put UNLV Basketball back on the national scene after 14 years of mediocrity. So, it brings up an interesting question in regard to the state of UNLV basketball, where would the program be if Lon Kruger was still the head coach?
It is clear the UNLV would not be in the hole they are in now. Even though UNLV did make the NCAA Tournament the first two years under Dave Rice, most of those contributors where guys that Kruger had brought in. I give credit to Rice for bringing in top recruits, but he could never get it to translate to wins on the floor. Rice also did not have the experience as a head coach that Kruger has, which included winning with programs like Kansas State, Florida, and Illinois, which gives Kruger an advantage of knowing how to win in any circumstance.
With how the Mountain West has fallen since Utah, BYU, and TCU left the conference, it is fair to assume that the Rebels would be a top-three team in the conference every year and being in contention to win it every season. Aside from San Diego State, there has not been a single program that has consistently performed at a high level.
If you look at some recent successful teams in the conference, they all have something in common, they are mostly led by players with a lot of experience, juniors and seniors who have grown and developed. Teams like Utah State this past year with Sam Merrill and Fresno State a few years ago with Marvelle Harris. These were the types of players the Kruger brought in, just like Wink Adams, Joel Anthony, Curtis Terry, and Anthony Marshall, just to name a few, players that develop into great Mountain West players. And who have the knowledge and experience in how to win. One of the recruits who was set to come to UNLV under Kruger was Nigel Williams-Goss, who led Gonzaga to the National Championship Game.
He brings in the types of players who play hard and will do anything to win, which is what would have kept happening at UNLV. By bringing in the types of players he does, it would help UNLV have stability in the roster. Instead of having guys that would bail after a year or two to go to the draft, there would be a core that stays for three to four years and a group behind them that could replace them once they graduate.
Because of that, he would have continually kept the Rebels nationally relevant by winning and winning a lot. Kruger always scheduled tough, which would have the team ready to roll in conference play and would have given them a solid resume for the NCAA Tournament, where the Rebels would be at on a consistent basis if Kruger remained. Even though UNLV lost in the first round in his last two tournament appearances as Rebel coach, he showed with a special group, like the Sweet 16 team, that they could go far. There were plenty in Las Vegas that said it was okay Kruger was leaving because they needed someone who could take UNLV over the hump, that didn’t happen and I’m sure they would take Kruger back if they could.
Kruger took over at Oklahoma, and the Sooners and Rebels have gone in completely different directions. The most glaring moment for both programs was in 2016. Kruger took Oklahoma to the Final Four, while the Rebels fired Rice mid-season. Just months later, the Rebels hired Chris Beard, but Beard left for Texas Tech when that job opened up, also, some shenanigans involving the Board of Regents did not help as well.
One thing Kruger has is an appreciation for the past, which was something UNLV had a hard time celebrating prior to Kruger coming. Kruger was instrumental in getting the court named after Jerry Tarkanian. He helped build the bridge between former players, like the players from the 1990 National Championship team and the school. His efforts helped create a strong bond between the school and the community. He also helped UNLV build the Mendenhall Center, its new practice facility.
Might it be a bit unnecessary to dwell upon something that happened nearly a decade ago? Sure, that is a fair assessment, but what is also fair is the decline the program has been on since Kruger left. It is almost similar to when Tarkanian left and the Rebels had a hard time trying to find someone to replace them, even though no one could replace Tarkanian. And this is another example of the Rebels having a hard time trying to replace a hall of fame coach.
Next year, Otzelberger brings in a large recruiting class, which will help him put his stamp on the program. There will also be pressure on him to win in the conference and fight for an NCAA Tournament berth. Maybe he can do what Kruger did, build excitement around the program and win games, but only time will tell.
On Thursday, we will have story remembering UNLV Basketball’s National Championship on the 30th anniversary of defeating Duke 103-73.