Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021 | 2 a.m.
The UNLV basketball season starts this week as the Rebels look to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013. That’s likely going to be a tough task considering the program was projected to finish seventh in the Mountain West. One spot ahead? Fresno State. Mike and Ray discuss the season, and Ray expresses confusion about how the preseason poll has the Bulldogs ahead of the Rebels.
Early in the first half of UNLV’s season opener against Gardner-Webb on Wednesday, center Royce Hamm stepped behind the arc and made a 3-pointer from the top of the key.
In the final minutes of the second half, guard Bryce Hamilton came off a screen and hit a triple from the right wing to give UNLV some breathing room in an eventual 64-58 win.
Besides those two shots, the scarlet and gray went 0-of-23 from 3-point range.
It was an almost unthinkable shooting performance from a team that seemingly has capable marksmen at the ready. And considering it was just the second 3-pointer of Hamm’s five-year college career and that Hamilton was 0-of-8 from distance before his make, UNLV has to feel a little fortunate to have made any at all.
All those bricks made the game a lot closer than it should have been.
Was it something in the arena? Gardner-Webb didn’t manage much better, making 3-of-20 beyond the arc, so maybe it was chilly inside the Thomas & Mack Center, or perhaps there was some other external factor affecting shooters’ equilibrium.
It’s unlikely, but either way head coach Kevin Kruger knows this UNLV team is not going to survive shooting 8.0% in many contests.
In his quest to raise the team’s shooting accuracy, Kruger wants his players to hunt for better shots. That means more ball movement and sometimes passing up the first good 3-point look for an even more open attempt by a teammate.
“This group can shoot it,” Kruger said, “but it’s difficult to shoot it rushed or out of rhythm. That’s the thing we’ve been working on a bunch is getting that ball moving side to side. Create a good look for a teammate. Be patient within the offense. We didn’t mind the guys shooting. We’ll take the 25 attempts we had with the guys the same exact way, but maybe one more ball reversal, one more paint touch. Things like that will just get us cleaner looks.”
Kruger is right that UNLV should be able to shoot it. The program’s imported shooters struggled in their scarlet and gray debuts, however. Hawaii transfer Justin Webster missed all three of his long-distance attempts, Kent State transfer Mike Nuga went 0-of-2 from distance and junior college recruit Josh Baker went 0-of-4 beyond the arc. That backcourt trio combined to shoot 39.4% from 3-point range last year at their respective schools.
Baker said his process after a poor shooting performance includes watching film and then going out to the practice court to try to recreate the shots he missed. He connected on 45.2% of his 3-pointers over two years at Hutchinson CC (113-of-245), so it’s an exercise that has worked for the 6-foot-4 guard.
Baker thought he and his fellow shooters had enough open looks against Gardner-Webb, but like Kruger believes crisper ball movement will lead to better percentages team-wide.
“I feel like I got some good shots,” Baker said. “I felt like more as a team we could fight to get a better shot as far as moving the ball, getting paint touches. That’s stuff we’re working on now. Just getting in the gym and getting more game shots ready, that will help us for the game Saturday against Cal.”
Hamilton, who finished 1-of-9 from deep, isn’t worried at all about his stroke or his teammates’ shooting ability.
“I think we’re a real good shooting team. We’ve got a lot of shooters,” Hamilton said. “All our guards can shoot, we’ve just got to be able to get in the paint, make the right shot selections and we’ll be fine.”
McCabe in, Iwaukor out
Senior point guard Jordan McCabe is expected to play in today’s home game against Cal. The West Virginia transfer sat out the opener as he served a one-game suspension from the NCAA for playing in an unsanctioned event during the offseason.
McCabe has been in the mix to be the team’s starting point guard. In his absence on Wednesday, Kruger went without a true point guard in his starting lineup, opting instead to insert combo guard Josh Baker.
McCabe’s return doesn’t make UNLV whole, however, as power forward Victor Iwuakor is expected to miss his second straight game due to an arm injury. Iwaukor, a 6-foot-7 transfer from Oklahoma, did not practice on Friday.
With Cal possessing more size than Gardner-Webb, it could prompt Kruger to turn to reserve big men David Muoka and Reece Brown for more minutes.