Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023 | 10:43 p.m.
What happened at the Thomas & Mack Center on Wednesday was shocking, disheartening and downright demoralizing. And now UNLV has to move on.
The Scarlet and Gray didn’t just lose to visiting Southern in the season opener, they were torched for 40 minutes by a team that came in as massive underdogs. For most of the second half the game was not competitive, as the Jaguars maintained a lead of more than 20 points before finishing off UNLV, 85-71.
Kevin Kruger’s squad, which harbored NCAA Tournament dreams, now has to figure out a way to pick up the pieces after one of the most stunning defeats in program history.
Here are just a few of the big-picture questions facing UNLV:
How bad is this loss going to hurt?
UNLV entered the night at No. 75 in the KenPom preseason ratings, while Southern checked in at No. 326. There are only 362 Division I teams, so that gives an idea of the low esteem in which the Jaguars are held. Also, they lost their opener to TCU by 33 points on Monday.
So yeah, expect UNLV to tumble down the ratings in a big, big way.
What can Kruger do to keep the team together?
Fifth-year guard Justin Webster and sophomore forward Isaiah Cottrell were understandably downtrodden in UNLV’s postgame news conference, and it’s safe to assume the rest of the team feels the same way. They came into this season expecting to play their way into the tournament; some, like senior Jalen Hill, used their final year of eligibility to transfer to UNLV because they believed a special season was in store.
Forty minutes later, all of that is in jeopardy.
“Obviously, we’re hurt,” Webster said. “We can’t let it get to us. It’s a long season. Obviously we’re hurt by this loss.”
Is it the kind of defeat that can break the team’s spirit and derail the entire season? Kruger doesn’t think so.
The third-year head coach said he is going to lean on his veterans and trust that they’ll keep up the fight.
“We’re not doing any hero speeches yet,” Kruger said. “This is a group that’s been through the ups and downs. Everybody in that locker room has got a night they look back on and wish they could have back. Unfortunately, we learned our lesson really early here.”
We’ll have to see how they come out against Stetson on Saturday, after two days of practice and reflection. If they play with the same lack of urgency we saw against Southern, that will be a very bad sign.
What the heck happened?
On the court, nothing seemed to go right. Offensively, UNLV shot well under 40% until some garbage-time baskets boosted their percentages; on the other end, the defense was absolutely shredded by a Southern squad that appeared to have a quickness advantage at every position.
Kruger said Southern overwhelmed UNLV by playing with superior intensity.
“We were sped up across the board,” Kruger said. “That’s what you have when you’re timid. When you’re overthinking, you can get a little sped up. I think that was our issue in the first half. We weren’t just playing, we were thinking too much.”
Webster saw warning signs leading up to the game.
“We started taking things for granted,” Webster said. “We weren’t doing little details in practice, and eventually it caught up to us.”
Could that be chalked up to UNLV playing its opener, while Southern got a game under its belt a couple days earlier? Maybe. But the Scarlet and Gray are going to need players to be more decisive and forceful in everything they do.
It starts at point guard. Freshman D.J. Thomas made his college debut and navigated a tough first half (two points, five turnovers) before turning in a much better showing in the final 20 minutes (12 points, zero turnovers).
“After halftime, you could tell he took a breather, got his feet underneath him,” Kruger said.
If UNLV gets the second-half version of Thomas going forward, it should have a positive trickle-down effect on the rest of the lineup. That’s a lot of responsibility to put on a freshman, and under ideal conditions, he’d have a little time to acclimate. That’s gone now. UNLV needs Thomas to be great.
Can the Runnin’ Rebels turn it around?
It’s tempting to say UNLV’s season will now come down to four days in March, when their only hope will be a miracle run in the Mountain West Tournament, but that’s not true — yet. They can withstand one bad loss. They just eliminated their margin for error is all.
Right now, there are four opponents on the schedule who are ranked in the AP Top 25, so there will be opportunities to make up for losing to Southern. The bigger, more obvious question is, is UNLV capable of winning those games? Or is this team just not as good as we thought?
UNLV shot 9-of-29 from 3-point range and converted only 8-of-15 layups and dunks. That’s bad offense, and those percentages will have to come way up if the Scarlet and Gray want to make up ground in nonconference play.
Defensively, there is even more work to do. Southern shot a blistering 56.7%, and it wasn’t a fluke — the Jaguars drove to the basket for uncontested layups, taking advantage of a lack of rim protection on the UNLV side.
Kalib Boone’s return could help in that regard. The fifth-year, 6-foo-9 senior is UNLV’s nominal starting center, but he was suspended for the opener due to a DUI arrest last month. He’ll be suited up against Stetson, and Kruger has to hope he provides some defense in the paint.
It’s going to take a lot of work, and UNLV offered little reason to believe on Wednesday, but count Kruger among the hopeful who don’t think the season is over.
“I’ve still got a positive outlook for this group,” Kruger said. “I think when we go watch the film and get into practice tomorrow, we’ll be a different team on Saturday. That’s for sure.”