UNLV Sizes Up the Jayhawks

OMAHA, NEB — UNLV lost four starters and its sixth man off last year's 30-7 Sweet 16 team. The Runnin' Rebels' 7-0 freshman recruit Beas Hamgas was declared ineligible before the season, and the team lost three expected big contributors during the year, leaving just a 10-man roster.

But wait, there’s more. Vegas’ two starters entered the program as walk-ons and the team’s tallest starter is 6-7. Heck, the average height of its starting lineup is just 6-feet, 4.5 inches. UNLV also boasts a player named Wink and has a 27-year-old starting forward.

And despite all this, Lon Kruger’s No. 8 seed Runnin’ Rebels are just one game away from reaching the Sweet 16. UNLV (27-7) can punch its ticket to Detroit with a victory over Kansas at approximately 5:50 p.m. on Saturday at the Qwest Center Omaha.

UNLV is on a roll now, winners of five straight and eight of its last nine games. Kruger doesn’t seem surprised with his team’s success and ability to overcome adversity.

“This group, from day one, just lined up like they expected good things to happen,” Kruger said. “They worked awfully hard. They’re a close group. They are very unselfish on the court. Everyone knows Wink (Adams, star guard and leading scorer) was going to be at the center of everything that was happening out there. They were very comfortable with that. Then just different guys rallied around him and stepped up at different times and the confidence grew with each week of good play and good results. They’ve consistently made progress from start to today.”

Expect Vegas to play strong pressure defense against Kansas, and expect them to  likely make good decisions. UNLV ranks No .6 in the nation in fewest turnovers per game, although the Runnin’ Rebels did cough it up 19 times in their 71-58 opening-round victory over Kent State on Thursday.

And you can certainly expect UNLV to play its best opponent of the season on Saturday. Vegas has played three ranked teams this year, winning once against No. 24 BYU, 76-61, in the Mountain West Tournament Championship on March 15. The Rebels’ two losses to ranked opponents came against No. 6 Louisville (68-48 on Nov. 21) and No. 19 Arizona (52-49 on Dec. 19).

Kruger is very concerned with KU.

“Kansas is so good and so athletic,” he said. “Sometimes you get a talented team like that and they lean on their talent. But with KU, they also play extremely hard and very unselfishly, and with all of Bill’s (Self) teams, they’re very organized and get exactly what they want. Our guys are looking forward to it. The challenge is great. Any time you have an 8-1 matchup, you expect that.”

UNLV has been overcoming challenges all year and winning with great defense; the Runnin’ Rebels held Kent State to just 10 points in the first half, the lowest output in the modern era of the NCAA Tournament.

“I think our guys recognized early that our identity needed to start on the defensive end,” Kruger said. “They bought into it and accepted it and took pride in it. We’ve met the ball early and starting position has always been important to us. Our guys have done a pretty good job with that, not only on the perimeter but also in the post.

“But Kansas is a little different animal. they’re bigger and more athletic and deeper than most teams in the country. It’s going to be a big test from the start.”

Adams is certainly quite familiar with the Jayhawks.

“I’ve been watching Kansas play all season,” he said. “Every time you turn on the TV, they’re playing. I enjoy watching them play. They’re a team that plays together. That’s what makes them so effective. And they’ve got great athleticism, they can shoot it. They have a great in-style presence, a great all-around team.”

Kruger said guys like Adams have been great leaders for this team. Even though he was the only returning player who saw significant minutes last year, Kruger believes all the returnees benefited greatly from UNLV’s run to the Sweet 16.

“It gave them a lot of confidence,” Kruger said. “Curtis Terry (6-5 guard/forward) has confidence in what he can do. René Rougeau (6-6 guard) has confidence. (And) Wink has confidence. These are confident type of players. I think because of that experience last year, that gave them the ability to step up and set the tone from the beginning for the younger guys with this team.”

And what a successful year it’s been for UNLV basketball. The Runnin’ Rebels are in the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years for the first time s since 1990 and 1991. Vegas cut down the championship nets in 1990 and returned to the Final Four in ‘91.

Kruger’s team hopes to make the Final Four again this April and win it all in San Antonio. Of course, Kansas will be a big roadblock in their path. But this cast of unknowns and unwanteds are ready for game time, they’re primed to continue their seemingly improbably season a little bit longer.

“(It’s) definitely going to be a big battle all night,” said Rougeau, who posted a double-double (12 points and 10 rebounds) against Kent State. “We definitely knew coming into the tournament if we want to go farther, we’re going to have to play someone big, whether it’s Georgetown, whoever it is.

“So we got Kansas now. This is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for. Me and Wink were talking in our hotel room saying this is like the biggest game in our lives playing like the No. 1 team in the country. They’ve been so good all year and we’re definitely looking forward to it. (We’re) really going to have to box out and each possession is going to matter to us.”

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