Published Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023 | noon
Updated 1 hour, 20 minutes ago
Game 1 did not go the way anyone expected, especially not anyone inside the UNLV program. What was supposed to be a special season instead opened with a demoralizing, 85-71 loss to Southern at the Thomas & Mack Center.
It was an all-around beatdown at the hands of the visiting Jaguars. Southern built an early 21-9 lead and were never challenged the rest of the way, as they shot 56.7% from the field on mostly uncontested looks.
UNLV, meanwhile, had no success revving up its offense. Transition points were nonexistent, and the halfcourt attack sputtered; when it was all over, the Scarlet and Gray managed a lowly 42.6% from the floor.
Where does UNLV go from here? That’s a tough question. This season was supposed to culminate in an NCAA Tournament berth, but this loss likely eliminates them from at-large consideration right out of the gate.
Kevin Kruger will have to find some solutions in a hurry, as UNLV is set to host Stetson on Saturday.
UNLV getting blown out by Southern
The Thomas & Mack Center has watched most of the second half in stunned silence, as Southern continues to lap the home team. With 7:34 remaining, the Jaguars maintain a commanding, 68-49 lead over UNLV.
UNLV is just 5-of-23 from 3-point range, and they’re shooting 37.8% from the floor. That’s not going to be good enough to beat many opponents, and especially not when that opponent is scoring with the ease Southern has been putting it in the bucket. The visitors have been around 50% for most of the night and are at 53.8% at the moment.
It’s been a particularly tough night for the starting backcourt of D.J. Thomas and Justin Webster, as they’ve combined to make 6-of-17 from the field.
Unless the unthinkable happens, UNLV is going to take a loss on opening night. That’s going to throw quite a wrench into their NCAA Tournament plans.
Southern stomping UNLV in opener
There has been no miracle turnaround in the second half for UNLV — not through the first eight minutes, anyway. With 11:51 remaining, upstart Southern is still taking it to the Scarlet and Gray, 61-39.
It’s been a low-energy performance from the home team, and that has continued through the break. Every UNLV basket — and there have been few — has been answered by Southern immediately, stemming any momentum for Kevin Kruger’s squad. After D.J. Thomas made his first college bucket, sinking a nice fadeaway, Southern came down and hit a 3.
Trading baskets is not going to get it done, not with the hole UNLV has dug for itself. Unless they start defending like crazy and making shots, Southern is going to run away with this one.
Ice-cold UNLV trails Southern at half, 40-21
UNLV may have big expectations for this season, but unless they can find a way to mount a second-half comeback tonight, they’re going to have a hard time meeting them.
Southern has jumped out to a stunning 40-21 lead at halftime, not only putting UNLV on upset alert, but possibly jeopardizing their NCAA Tournament hopes before the season even really gets going.
The outside shooting has been ice cold for the home team, as they’re 3-of-16 from 3-point range. Justin Webster has had a particularly tough time, connecting on just 1-of-7. Southern has had no such issues finding the range, as they’re at 47.1% from the field and 6-of-8 from deep.
D.J. Thomas hasn’t been able to put his stamp on the game to this point. The freshman has two points, two assists and a steal, but has yet to convert from the field (0-of-2).
Can the Scarlet and Gray find a way to turn it around at halftime? These next 20 minutes could — believe it or not — define the season.
UNLV in shooting slump vs. Southern
UNLV went more than five minutes without scoring, allowing Southern to go on a run and build a 25-14 lead with 6:07 left in the first half.
It’s been a surprising night for the Scarlet and Gray so far. They’ve been able to manufacture open looks, but none of them are dropping. Senior sharpshooter Justin Webster has had a bunch of open shots and has converted just one so far (1-of-7 from 3-point range).
Can UNLV bear down on defense and create some transition looks? Maybe drive and get to the free-throw line? They’ve got to do something to stimulate the offense before Southern starts getting serious upset ideas.
UNLV tied with Southern early in season opener
The 2023-24 season is officially underway, as UNLV and Southern are knotted at 9-9 with 13:45 remaining in the first half.
As expected, UNLV went with freshman D.J. Thomas as the starting point guard. Justin Webster and Luis Rodriguez flanked him on the wings, while Jalen Hill and Isaiah Cottrell made up the starting front court. That’s the lineup UNLV went with in practice this week, with Keylan and Kalib Boone unavailable and Shane Nowell out due to a leg injury.
Cottrell is off to a nice start, as the big man canned his first two 3-point attempts. The first one came on a pick-and-pop, assisted by Thomas, in what could be a preview of things to come this season.
Hill has also made his presence known, driving baseline and throwing down a two-handed dunk to give UNLV its most recent bucket.
UNLV basketball tips off against Southern
UNLV basketball will roll out that red carpet for the first time this season tonight, when the Scarlet and Gray host Southern University in the opener for both teams (7 p.m., Mountain West Network/Silver State Entertainment).
It’s the tipoff of a critical campaign for UNLV and head coach Kevin Kruger, as the program chases an NCAA Tournament with a roster that has been rebuilt around veteran transfers and 5-star freshman point guard D.J. Thomas.
What should we expect? Three keys to watch:
Twin brothers Kalib and Keylan Boone were cornerstone offseason additions via the transfer portal, but UNLV will be without both of them against Southern.
Kalib, a senior center, was arrested for DUI last month and has been suspended for one game by UNLV. And Keylan, a senior wing, is still waiting for the NCAA to rule on his waiver for immediate eligibility after transferring from Pacific.
It’s not an ideal start to the season, considering the key roles the Boones were expected to play. But Kalib will be back for Saturday’s game against Stetson, and Keylan should be eligible at some point; even if the NCAA denies immediate eligibility, he should be able to play in the second half of the year as a grad transfer.
Look for senior guard Justin Webster to start in place of Keylan Boone, while junior Isaiah Cottrell is likely to start at center.
In Kruger’s first two years at the helm, UNLV’s offenses have tended to lean heliocentric. In 2021-22, it was built around Bryce Hamilton’s off-the-dribble scoring ability, and last year it was E.J. Harkless’s turn to be the man.
That’s not the way the offense is designed to run this season. Senior wing Luis Rodriguez, who averaged a career-high 10.7 points per game last year, says there is a more balanced approach this time around, with more ball and player movement.
As Rodriguez describes it, the Scarlet and Gray want to get everyone involved.
“Sharing the ball more. More touches for everybody. Just moving the ball and everybody playing the right way,” he said.
Play it, D.J.
You have to go back to Brandon McCoy in 2017 for the last time UNLV welcomed a freshman with as much hype as D.J. Thomas.
The rookie point guard comes in rated as the No. 34 prospect in the Class of 2023 and the top player in Nevada after leading Liberty to back-to-back state title games, including a championship in 2022. And Thomas is not going to be eased in — he’ll be the starting point guard on opening night, running the show.
Will he be up to speed against Southern? An injury to his shooting hand kept Thomas from competing in either of UNLV’s closed-door scrimmages, but he has been practicing and Kruger said he is a “full go” for Wednesday. If Thomas is healthy and as good as advertised, his presence should raise the ceiling for this UNLV team considerably.
“I’m really excited,” Thomas said. “It’s going to be fun. We’re going to play really fast. We’re called the Runnin’ Rebels, so of course we’ve got to play fast. A lot of dunks.”