Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021 | 2 a.m.
UNLV basketball convened for its first official practice on Wednesday, with (mostly) new players and a (mostly) new coaching staff beginning the process of preparing for the season opener on Nov. 9.
A look at how the day unfolded:
Meet the new coach
This wasn’t really Kevin Kruger’s first practice in charge of UNLV basketball, as he’s been leading the team in workouts through the spring and summer, but symbolically it was his debut as the leader of the program.
It seems like his players have already bought in. The two-hour session mixed normal opening-day excitement with an on-court intensity that should bode well for a defensive-minded team when the real games begin.
Kruger was pleased with what he saw from his squad, which includes 10 newcomers (nine of whom are college transfers).
“Today was a good sign,” Kruger said. “They’ve had a great summer and a great fall in that regard. We want them to be competitive and we want our practices to be high energy, and I thought today was great.”
Senior point guard Marvin Coleman, who has played under three head coaches at UNLV, gave Kruger a strong vote of confidence.
“Coach Kruger is a new coach, but he knows what he’s doing,” Coleman said. “He played here, he knows the expectations, and as an assistant he knew what he was doing. To come up, get a head coaching job, that’s big time for him, so I’m excited for what he can do.”
Hamilton is back
After an offseason that saw Bryce Hamilton explore all avenues out of Las Vegas, the high-scoring guard is back for his senior season — and he’s going to play a huge role.
Kruger envisions Hamilton, who averaged a team-high 17.9 points per game last year, being the focal point of the offense.
“Bryce’s ability to score is one of those things, it’s an instinct for him,” Kruger said. “It’s natural. At the end [of the clock], you’ve got nothing going and he just throws the ball in, and it’s great. All the coaches get a pat on the back but he’s the one out there making things happen.”
Hamilton tested the NBA Draft process and entered the NCAA transfer portal before ultimately deciding to return to UNLV under Kruger.
After flashing his scoring touch throughout the first practice, Hamilton said he wants his senior season to be about winning.
“The main goal is to win. I’ve never been to the NCAA Tournament,” Hamilton said. “I feel like with this group, we’re able to do that.”
In addition to winning, there is some UNLV history within reach, too — a scoring average of 20.1 points per game over the entire season would move Hamilton into the program’s all-time Top 10 in scoring.
Judging by the way Kruger plans to deploy him, that benchmark seems entirely possible.
“We’re going to lean on him, heavy,” Kruger said, “and we told him that from the time he decided to come back.”
No rust for Nuga
Perhaps the biggest offseason addition for UNLV was shooting guard Mike Nuga, a sixth-year senior who transferred from Kent State. Nuga is an explosive scorer (17.8 points per game last year) who had his 2020-21 campaign cut short due to a torn ACL in January, but he showed no noticeable rust on Wednesday as he flew around the court and dominated most of the proceedings.
After throwing down a series of dunks at the end of practice in an informal competition with fellow transfer Donovan Williams (Texas), Nuga conceded that Williams had him beat — for now.
Nuga reported that his knee feels fine, but he’s still working his way back to being a full participant.
“Everything has been good so far,” Nuga said. “I feel 100 percent. I feel like I’m ready to play. I’m still going to follow what the trainer tells me to do and transition slowly back into practice.”
Athleticism is head-turning
Nuga isn’t the only exceptional athlete on the roster. As mentioned, Williams is capable of getting above the rim with ease, and Oklahoma transfer big man Victor Iwuakor looked as agile and explosive as advertised.
Senior point guard Marvin Coleman has played under three head coaches at UNLV, and he believes this is the most athletic squad he’s been a part of.
“It’s next level,” Coleman said. “The athleticism is crazy. It’s like nothing I’ve seen here yet.”
Previous coach T.J. Otzelberger did not particularly emphasize raw athleticism on the recruiting trail, but Kruger clearly values physical traits.
“We’re a lot more athletic,” Hamilton said. “We’ve got a lot of talent, a lot of guys that came from Power 5 schools. We’re going to be pretty good.”
Nuga echoed that scouting report.
“We’re a very talented team,” Nuga said. “We have a lot of length, a lot of size, and I think that we’re going to surprise a lot of people this year that are doubting us with our speed, our athleticism and the way we attack the ball.”
Coleman is healthy
Coleman missed all but six games last year due to a leg injury, and UNLV certainly missed him on the court. Now the senior Las Vegas native is healthy and ready to once again lead by example.
After just one practice, Kruger sounded very appreciative of everything Coleman brings to the table.
“The best part about Marvin is he’s reliable,” Kruger said. “He’s somebody you can count on. He’s been here. When you say things and you talk with him, you understand each other because there’s that history. Having him come back was huge and we’re going to lean on him a lot for leadership and a steady hand.”
Team is 100% vaccinated
Kruger confirmed that the program is 100% vaccinated, meaning all players, coaches and team personnel have received the COVID-19 vaccine.
There has been no word yet on how vaccination rates may impact the season, but it’s likely the Mountain West will incentivize it somehow. Either way, being fully vaxxed means UNLV doesn’t have to worry about it. And for a team with a first-year head coach, the fewer off-court headaches, the better.
Kruger is comfortable with transfers
Kruger brought in 10 newcomers over the offseason, completely rebuilding the roster, and he did it mostly via the transfer portal. The goal, Kruger said, is to build a mature squad that is ready to compete physically with the rest of the Mountain West.
Kruger also believes experienced players will develop chemistry faster, negating some of the slippage that comes with such voluminous turnover from year to year.
“We’re hoping the experience and the age can shorten or lessen the gap in terms of time with each other,” Kruger said. “We’ve got guys that, being older on their second stop, the conversations are a lot more direct.”
Toward the end of practice, former UNLV coach Lon Kruger made his way into the Mendenhall Center to observe. That figures to be a regular occurrence, as Kevin Kruger plans to welcome the wisdom of his recently retired father.
“He’s a mentor to me as much as he is a dad,” Kevin Kruger said. “I have no hesitations or qualms about admitting that yeah, I’m going to bounce everything off of him. I wrote the first practice plan and after meeting with the coaches, [I asked him], ‘What would you do differently when you were coaching? What do you think of this? How would you explain that?’”