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Oct 6: UNLV Rebels Practice

Steve Marcus

UNLV head basketball coach Kevin Kruger talks with players during practice in Mendenhall Center at UNLV Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021.

November 13 vs. California 5 p.m., Thomas & Mack Center

November 15 vs. North Dakota State 7 p.m., Thomas & Mack Center

November 19 vs. Michigan 9:30 p.m., T-Mobile Arena

November 21 vs. Arizona or Wichita State 6:30 or 9 p.m., T-Mobile Arena

November 24 vs. Whittier College 6:30 p.m., Thomas & Mack Center

November 27 vs. UCLA 2 p.m., Thomas & Mack Center

Tickets available through unlvtickets.com or at 702-739-3267.

UNLV underwent another drastic transformation this offseason, waving goodbye to former coach T.J. Otzelberger after a two-year stint and promoting assistant Kevin Kruger to the job. Frequent new beginnings are now the nature of college basketball since the advent of the transfer portal, but changes have come at a particularly breakneck pace for the scarlet and gray. Kruger hopes to provide stability, despite being a first-time head coach. He wants to win now. That’s why he replaced most of Otzelberger’s players with college transfers who figure to be ready to play right away. Among the 10 newcomers to the team, nine are transfers; only one is a high school recruit. It’s an uncommon approach to rebuilding. Most of the transfers are former top prospects who, for one reason or another, didn’t play much at their previous schools. So, while UNLV might be an older team, it isn’t really an experienced one. That left a lot of mystery as UNLV prepared to open its season on November 10. What kind of team will this be? Here’s what we know, and what we don’t.

We know: These guys are athletic

Kruger really focused on reshaping a roster that had become rather stationary and earthbound under Otzelberger. The difference, as seen in practices, has been night and day. Senior center Royce Hamm, junior forward Victor Iwuakor and junior forward Donovan Williams are each more athletic than anyone on last year’s roster, and all three figure to play big minutes in the frontcourt.

We don’t know: If these guys can shoot

Hamm, Iwuakor and Williams combined to go 5-for-25 from 3-point range last year, so this roster clearly isn’t built like Otzelberger’s floor-stretching squads. Kruger did import a pair of guards who shot the ball well last year in Mike Nuga from Kent State and Justin Webster from Hawaii, but the offense will run through senior guard Bryce Hamilton, who’s more of a slasher than a shooter.

We know: Kruger has the pedigree to be a successful head coach

During his playing days, Kruger was a thinking man’s point guard, who famously led the Rebels deep into the 2007 NCAA Tournament. He has been groomed for seven years as an assistant, including three years under his father, Lon, at Oklahoma. Those are all bullet points you would expect to see on the résumé of a bright young head coach, so on paper, Kruger looks ready to lead his own program at the relatively young age of 38.

We don’t know: If Kruger will be a good head coach

With coaches, you just never know. The job of a head coach is too different than that of an assistant to really predict future success, no matter how primed someone might seem. Kruger’s players speak highly of him, however, and many credited him with building a good offensive playbook during his two years under Otzelberger.

We know: Hamilton is back for his senior year

When Hamilton simultaneously declared for the NBA Draft and entered his name in the transfer portal as a backup plan, he was assumed gone. It was one of UNLV’s biggest wins of the offseason when Hamilton—chosen as an All-Mountain West first-team selection after averaging 17.9 points per game last year—announced he would return for one more year.

We don’t know: If Hamilton will bounce back as a senior

Yes, Hamilton scored a lot of points last year, but it took him a lot of shots to do so. He made just 43% of his field goal attempts, and he wasn’t a threat from beyond the arc. That meant his scoring output was rather inefficient, and it remains to be seen if he can translate being one of the most talented players in the conference into more effective play in Kruger’s system.

We know: There’s room for a freshman

The lone freshman on the roster—Keshon Gilbert, a 6-foot-3 guard—has turned heads in practice with his defense and will likely find himself in the rotation to start the year. He was voted Mountain West Preseason Freshman of the Year.

We don’t know: If there’s room for the program’s longest-tenured veteran

Marvin Coleman has been the heart and soul of the program for several years now, but that doesn’t guarantee him a key role. He missed most of last season to injury, and while he was working his way back onto the court, the coaching staff brought in both Gilbert and senior transfer Jordan McCabe from West Virginia at his spot. Kruger loves Coleman’s toughness and leadership, but will that be enough for the Foothill graduate to earn steady minutes?

Article written by #LasVegasSun

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