Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023 | 2 a.m.
There is one primary goal for UNLV basketball this season: the NCAA Tournament.
Three years into Kevin Kruger’s tenure, the Scarlet and Gray have a frontcourt loaded with veterans, a backcourt with multiple shooters and a freshman phenom running the show. It should add up to the program’s first postseason berth since the 2012-13 season.
Because UNLV is set on making the field of 68, let’s make 68 predictions for the 2023-24 campaign — with a little prognosticative assistance from the coach and players themselves.
1. Who will be UNLV’s leading scorer? D.J. Thomas. Don’t expect an offense like last year, which featured E.J. Harkless as the clear-cut No. 1 option. The ball will be spread around, but Thomas stands out, even among a group that features several veterans who have scored in double figures in the past.
2. Will Keylan Boone play in the opener? No
3. Will Keylan Boone play in a game this season? Yes. Boone applied for a waiver to play immediately after his second transfer, but the NCAA has yet to rule. Even if he doesn’t get cleared for the opener, however, he should be able to graduate this semester (he’s a fifth-year senior) and become eligible in the second half as a grad transfer. That’s good news for a UNLV team that could really use his outside shooting (41.0 3FG% last year).
4. Will UNLV score 100 points in any game? Yes. The Scarlet and Gray will hang 114 points on Carroll College on Dec. 31 at the Thomas & Mack Center.
5. Who will lead the team in dunks? Justin Webster’s prediction: Kalib Boone. “I think K.B. will…Any time you throw it down there and he sees the rim, he is going to dunk it.”
6. Who will score the most points in the paint? Justin Webster’s prediction: Kalib Boone — or maybe Isaiah Cottrell, or perhaps Rob Whaley. “We throw it in there so much, I think those guys are bound to lead in points in the paint.”
7. Who will lead the team in rebounding? Kalib Boone, 7.5 per game.
8. How many 3-pointers will Justin Webster make? 73. Webster made 57-of-124 last year (46.0%), and his light has only gotten greener since then. His job is to let it fly whenever he’s open.
9. Who will hit the first 3-pointer of the season? Justin Webster’s prediction: “I think it will either by myself or Lu.”
10. How many different players will lead the team in scoring in a game? Kevin Kruger’s prediction: Eight. “I think this will be a balanced group. Of course, once the year goes on we’ll have the usual suspects, but I think as a whole, there’s a number of different guys that can benefit in different ways each night.”
11. Will UNLV defeat a ranked team? Yes. Three of their opponents are in the AP Preseason Top 25, with Creighton at No. 8, San Diego State at No. 17 and Saint Mary’s at No. 23. The Scarlet and Gray will fall to Creighton, but knock off Saint Mary’s on a neutral site and beat SDSU at home.
12. What will be UNLV’s longest winning streak? Eight games (Nov. 8 to Dec. 9)
13. What will be the longest losing streak? Two games (Jan. 6 to Jan. 9)
14. What will be UNLV’s best regular-season win? vs. San Diego State (March 5)
15. What will be the worst loss? vs. Colorado State (Feb. 24)
16. How many games will the Scarlet and Gray win in the Sunshine Slam? Two
17. Which veteran newcomer will have the biggest impact? Jalen Hill. Kruger expects Hill to play defense at the highest level in the conference while marking multiple positions, and he has shown an expanded offensive game in practice. He’s poised for a strong homecoming campaign.
18. Will Kevin Kruger get a technical foul? Kevin Kruger’s prediction: No. “I hope not.”
19. Which home game will have the highest attendance? vs. San Diego State (March 5)
20. Will UNLV win a game at the buzzer? No
21. Will UNLV have any players on the MWC All-Defense team? Kevin Kruger’s prediction: Yes. “When you talk about Jalen and Lu right off the bat…I think we’ll have candidates for Defensive Player of the Year hopefully.”
22. What line will D.J. Thomas post in his first game? 16 points, six assists, four rebounds, two steals, 1-of-4 from 3-point range
23. How many times will Thomas break 20 points? Seven
24. What will be Thomas’s season high in assists? Nine, against Hofstra on Dec. 21
25. Will UNLV sweep any conference opponents? Five. The Scarlet and Gray will win their lone matchup against Utah State, if you count that as a sweep, then go 2-0 against Air Force, San Jose State, Fresno State, Wyoming and UNR (Kruger has never lost to UNR as a head coach).
26. What will be the most feel-good moment of the season? Anderson Hunt’s jersey retirement ceremony, at halftime of Saturday’s game against Stetson
27. What will be the starting lineup on opening night? D.J. Thomas, Justin Webster, Luis Rodriguez, Jalen Hill, Isaiah Cottrell
28. Will the 3-pointer streak survive the season? Kevin Kruger’s prediction: Yes. “We need to make one every game. The way the college game is now, we’re going to shoot plenty, so I certainly hope so.”
29. Who will lead the team in double-doubles? Kalib Boone, eight
30. Who will lead the team in minutes? Jalen Hill. With the way Kruger plans to use him on defense, good luck getting him off the floor for very long.
31. Will anyone top E.J. Harkless’s high of 35 points from last year? No
32. Will UNLV beat San Diego State? Yes, at home on March 5
33. Will UNLV have a player on the All-Mountain West team? No. It’s a talented team, and D.J. Thomas is likely to claim Freshman of the Year honors, but a balanced attack will leave any single player without the stats necessary to make the All-MWC squad.
34. Where will UNLV finish in the Mountain West standings? Fourth place
35. Will UNLV win a game in the Mountain West tournament? Yes
36. Will UNLV make it to the semifinals of the Mountain West tournament? Yes. The Scarlet and Gray haven’t made it to Friday in the conference tourney since the 2013-14 season under Dave Rice, but they’re primed to do it now. Look for UNLV to secure a first-round bye, then win their Thursday matchup to reach the semis.
37. Will UNLV win the Mountain West tournament? No
38. Will UNLV make the NCAA Tournament? Luis Rodriguez’s prediction: Yes. “For sure. We want to go as far as we can. I’m not even going to say just NCAA Tournament; make a run in there.”
39-68. Which games will UNLV win and lose?
Wednesday vs. Southern University — Win (1-0)
Saturday vs. Stetson — Win (2-0)
Nov. 17 at Pepperdine — Win (3-0)
Nov. 20 vs. Florida State (at Daytona Beach) — Win (4-0)
Nov. 21 vs. Colorado/Richmond (at Daytona Beach) — Win (5-0)
Nov. 28 vs. Akron — Win (6-0)
Dec. 6 at Dayton — Win (7-0)
Dec. 9 vs. Loyola Marymount — Win (8-0)
Dec. 13 vs. Creighton — Loss (8-1)
Dec. 16 vs. Saint Mary’s (at Phoenix) — Win (9-1)
Dec. 21 vs. Hofstra — Win (10-1)
Dec. 31 vs. Carroll College — Win (11-1)
Jan. 6 at San Diego State — Loss (11-2)
Jan. 9 vs. New Mexico — Loss (11-3)
Jan. 13 vs. Utah State — Win (12-3)
Jan. 16 at Boise State — Loss (12-4)
Jan. 19 at Colorado State — Win (13-4)
Jan. 23 vs. Air Force — Win (14-4)
Jan. 27 at San Jose State — Win (15-4)
Jan .30 vs. Fresno State — Win (16-4)
Feb. 3 vs. Wyoming — Win (17-4)
Feb. 10 at New Mexico — Loss (17-5)
Feb. 14 at Fresno State — Win (18-5)
Feb. 17 vs. UNR — Win (19-5)
Feb. 21 at Air Force — Win (20-5)
Feb. 24 vs. Colorado State — Loss (20-6)
Feb. 27 at Wyoming — Win (21-6)
March 2 vs. San Jose State — Win (22-6)
March 5 vs. San Diego State — Win (23-6)
March 9 at UNR — Win (24-6)