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Rebels aim to end their ten-year losing streak in the NCAA Tournament


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    It is the college basketball program of Jerry Tarkanian and Larry Johnson, of Shawn Marion and Stacey Augmon, and Sidney Green and Greg Anthony. And on and on and on.

    Of the Hardway Eight.

    Of four trips to the Final Four.

    Of UNLV 103, Duke 73.

    Of, well, Runnin’.

    But while history might develop over time, not much of it has in a memorable sense the past 10 years. That’s how long it has been since the Rebels made the NCAA Tournament.

    A really long decade.

    There has been no level of consistency except for falling short. Kevin Kruger wants to change that. He wants it more than anything.

    He is the third-year coach and former Rebels point guard whose team opens its season against Southern on Nov. 8.

    “If the tournament was easy to get to, everybody would be there,” Kruger said. “And we certainly wouldn’t be in a drought in terms of getting there.”

    The last time UNLV knew firsthand about March Madness was 2013, when the Rebels as a No. 5 seed under then-coach Dave Rice fell to No. 12 seed California 64-61.

    It was in 2007 — under the guidance of his father, Lon, as coach — when Kevin Kruger helped direct the Rebels to a Sweet 16. That’s the furthest UNLV has traveled in the bracket since back-to-back Final Fours in 1990 and ’91.

    College athletics, including basketball, has changed dramatically since then. Changed dramatically over the last several years.

    The transfer portal has revamped — and sometimes destroyed — rosters across the nation annually. Payments from name, image and likeness licensing have played a major role in where recruits and transfers settle.

    Kruger has dipped into the portal often in his short time running the program, and again this season will offer a team of several key players who began careers elsewhere. This is, on paper, unquestionably his best side thus far.

    One good enough to end the drought?

    “Pressure?” Kruger said. “We haven’t been since 2013. That would have to be a question for the higher-ups, but, no, I don’t feel pressure.”

    Believing in someone

    Mountain West member San Diego State made the national championship game last season before falling to Connecticut, a Final Four culmination to a journey that began with the hiring of Steve Fisher as coach in 1999.

    His top assistant, Brian Dutcher, assumed control of the program in 2017, meaning the Aztecs have had two coaches since the year Tiger Woods won just his second major golf title and “SpongeBob SquarePants” premiered on Nickelodeon.

    Things at UNLV, meanwhile, have gone like this:

    Since its last NCAA appearance, the Rebels have had six coaches. One (Chris Beard) lasted just 19 days before bolting for Texas Tech. One (T.J. Otzelberger) lasted two seasons before taking the Iowa State job. Two (Rice and Marvin Menzies) were fired, and one (Todd Simon) held the interim tag.

    Now, there is Kruger in a third season.

    You can’t blame coaches for jumping to what they perceive to be better jobs at a Power Five level. That’s all timing. Could be good for them, might be bad for UNLV.

    But the longest tenure for a Rebels coach since Tarkanian’s historic run has been between 2004-11 from Lon Kruger.

    Stability in messaging is important. So too is it on the sidelines.

    “We won five games our first year and then a few more and then made the tournament and then had a bell curve and dropped down again and then an uptick,” Dutcher said. “You have to believe as an athletic director and president and department that you picked the right guy and then let him have time to build something. Believe in your heart. It’s the right thing to do.

    “It takes time to build a consistently winning program, which is what we’re all trying to do.”

    The boss

    UNLV athletic director Erick Harper knows the importance of making the NCAA Tournament.

    His take: Advancing to March Madness and becoming bowl-eligible in football — the Rebels are now that for the first time in a decade — only enhance what UNLV is as an institution overall, feeding into the opportunity for admissions and enrollment to increase.

    When athletics competes at a high level and wins and makes the postseason, there’s a better chance for the university’s brand to be available on the national scene.

    “We talk all the time,” Harper said of Kruger. “The expectation is the postseason. Kevin has grown as a head coach and is excited about this upcoming season. If we can stay healthy, I think we have a great shot of making the NCAA Tournament.

    “It would be great to end the drought just to say, like in football, we ended the drought.”

    The former player

    Wink Adams is a UNLV Athletics Hall of Fame member. He was a four-time all-conference selection and a teammate of Kevin Kruger on that Sweet 16 team.

    Adams scored 1,875 career points and ranks third all-time at UNLV in steals (213) and 3-pointers (208). And he has paid oh-so-close attention to the program over these last 10 years of no NCAA berths.

    “I’m not sure it’s anyone’s fault,” Adams said. “These are different times. When I was playing, I didn’t have one conversation with guys about the next level or leaving for whatever reason. If we played Air Force one night, we were talking the next one about BYU. We were so focused on what we needed to do to be successful in that moment.

    “I think Kevin as the coach is a great start. Played for the program, cares about it. I know how passionate he is and wanting to win. I guarantee he will get us back to the tournament. But, yes, I’m very surprised it has been 10 years.”

    The current player

    Jalen Hill played each of the last four seasons at Oklahoma, a former Clark High standout who has now come to UNLV for a fifth year of eligibility.

    He started 67 games over the last two seasons for the Sooners, averaging 9.7 points and 5.8 rebounds while shooting near 50 percent.

    And when he was deciding between the Rebels and schools such as Texas and Miami and West Virginia and Arkansas, something specific stood out.

    “I wanted to come back and help get UNLV to the tournament,” Hill said. “I was like in middle school the last time they went. That’s my whole goal, and I know we can win enough to do it. We have the guys and the coaches to make a run.

    “It’s important we bring that sense of pride back to Las Vegas. We want to do big things. At the end of the day, our whole goal is to make the tournament and win games.”

    They just don’t talk about it a lot, is all.

    At least their coach doesn’t.

    Dreamin’ of dancing

    It’s not a daily spoken source of motivation. Kruger doesn’t begin and end each practice with words about chasing an NCAA berth. He doesn’t encourage a March Madness-or-bust mentality.

    Too many variables go into winning at such a level. He doesn’t want players getting too discouraged after a loss, too high after a win.

    But it’s there, to be sure, hanging over the program as a constant reminder.

    “I think it would mean a great deal to the fabric of the city and the people who have been here for 40, 50 years,” Kruger said. “It would mean a great deal to guys I played with and coaches I played for. But we have to understand and appreciate how hard it is to win games. We have to play with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder.

    “When people talk about UNLV, it almost feels like sometimes they’re talking about UNLV but not necessarily us. So we have to earn it and go win games and play hard.

    “I’d love nothing more than to help get this program back to the tournament.”

    The duration of droughts varies widely. For UNLV basketball, 10 years has been long enough.

    Ed Graney, a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing, can be reached at [email protected]. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on X.

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