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UNLV vs Utah State

Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels guard Dedan Thomas Jr. (11) drives past Utah State Aggies guard Darius Brown II (10) during the second half of a NCAA basketball game at the Thomas & Mack Center Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024.

The Mountain West Conference has five teams currently in the Top 50 of the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings, and as luck would have it, UNLV opened the conference portion of its schedule by playing all five of them.

UNLV went 2-3 in that stretch, losing by 11 in their opener conference opener at San Diego State, last year’s national runnerup, posting inspiring wins over New Mexico and Boise State and difficult, last-second losses to Utah State and Colorado State. Each contest was physical, and each of the last four came down to the final seconds.

That’s exactly what coach Kevin Kruger expected from the Mountain West, as talk swirls that the league could get five or even six bids to the NCAA Tournament.

“This year, I think it’s the best the conference has ever been,” Kruger said.

Now that the early gauntlet is complete, this is a good time to take stock of where UNLV stands in relation to the rest of the conference.

Here’s what we know about UNLV after five MWC games:

Better than the record

A glance at the standings won’t tell the whole story about UNLV to this point in the season. The Rebels are 9-8 overall and 2-3 in conference play — both unimpressive marks — but they are probably better than those records would indicate.

UNLV was without starting swingman Keylan Boone for the first seven games due to eligibility issues, and it’s only been a couple weeks since forward Rob Whaley really started to get the hang of this Division I play. Since adding those two to the rotation, UNLV has been a different team, including the victories over New Mexico and Boise State.

UNLV also had Utah State and Colorado State on the ropes in the final minutes, and the Utah State game was lost on a controversial call that could have gone either way.

Based on the way UNLV is playing now, Kruger thinks he’s got a team that is more dangerous than the numbers show.

“I think our record is unfortunate,” Kruger said. “It doesn’t reflect how we’ve played.”

After losing at Colorado State, 78-75, UNLV is now No. 77 in the KenPom ratings, the highest ranking among all teams with fewer than 10 wins.

That kind of record is going to keep UNLV from getting an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but if the Rebels keep playing the way they have over the first five games, the wins will come, starting with a four-game stretch against the bottom of the conference that begins with a home date Tuesday against Air Force.

Kruger thinks his team is ready to prove it on the court.

“I think it would be hard to say we haven’t turned a corner,” Kruger said. “We’re going to keep working. Guys are going to keep working. I think there’s no question that we’ve turned a corner in the right way.”

Whaley breaks out

Whaley has been a huge factor in helping UNLV look like a good team in conference play. The 6-foot-7 forward has carved out a role as the first man off the bench, and he has been bringing serious energy on both ends of the floor.

In the last five games, Whaley is averaging 10 points and four rebounds per game in 20.6 minutes. He is shooting 63.3% in that stretch, with his efficiency buoyed by the amount of thunderous dunks he’s been throwing down of late.

It’s a long way from Dec. 16, when Whaley played just the final 36 seconds of double overtime after Keylan Boone, Kalib Boone and Isaiah Cottrell all fouled out.

“Since then, it feels like maybe he took a breath and just started having fun,” Kruger said. “He has become our X-factor.”

It took a couple months for the juco transfer to find his footing, but Whaley is in the midst of establishing himself as a key contributor, and UNLV is a better team for it.

“He’s a bruiser for us,” Keylan Boone said. “When we know we have that from him, we’re a tough team to beat.”

Shooting themselves in the foot

Outside shooting has been a long-term weakness for the UNLV basketball program, and it’s once again turning out to be the biggest flaw for the 2023-24 squad.

UNLV is attempting 7.6 3-pointers per game and making 34% of them, which are middling numbers (176th and 178th in the nation, respectively). The big problem is that the Scarlet and Gray are getting poor production from their most enthusiastic shooters.

Fifth-year seniors Justin Webster and Luis Rodriguez lead the team in attempts, by far, and neither is shooting the ball well this season: Webster is 25-of-87 (28.7%) and Rodriguez is 28-of-85 (32.9%). So even though point guards Jackie Johnson (39.3%) and D.J. Thomas (37.8%) are having good years from beyond the arc, it’s getting drowned out by all the misses from the wings.

Webster’s percentage would be a career low, so there is still some hope he can bounce back in the second half of the season. Rodriguez, however, is right around his career average, so the only hope is that he’ll tailor his shot selection in close games.

Friday’s loss at Colorado State was a good example of the 3-point woes coming back to haunt. UNLV made just four triples until Webster’s garbage-time make at the buzzer. CSU, meanwhile, landed 10 3-pointers, including two in the final 90 seconds to steal the game.

Unless Kruger steps in and drastically reconfigures the team’s shot distribution, it’s going to be hard for UNLV to win from the 3-point line.

Thomas is still the priority

Thomas has been UNLV’s top recruiting priority going on three years now, and he probably still retains that title midway through his freshman year.

The Liberty product has exceeded expectations, starting every game and posting 12 points and 6.4 assists in a team-high 35 minutes (no other player even averages 32 minutes). He is poised beyond his years, and his ability to control the offense and score from all three levels makes him a cinch for MWC Freshman of the Year.

“He’s tough. He’s scrappy. He deals with a lot of physicality, a lot of older guys in this league, and he continues to improve and get better from it,” Kruger said.

It’s never too early to start looking ahead, though, and UNLV is going to have to put on a full-court press to keep Thomas in the offseason. The transfer portal is a constant threat, and though Thomas has a lucrative NIL deal, power programs will be motivated to pry him loose.

If Thomas were to leave, UNLV would lose its top five scorers heading into next year. That’s a tough rebuild. If Thomas is retained, however, it’s tough to imagine a better building block for Kruger to sell to incoming recruits — and the fan base.

Home court can make a difference

UNLV has played three conference road games, and home court advantages have been evident.

In the team’s two road losses — at San Diego State and at Colorado State — hostile environments made an obvious impact, helping SDSU jump out to an early 18-3 lead and spurring CSU to close with a 15-4 run.

UNLV, unfortunately, doesn’t have the same advantage at the Thomas & Mack Center. In the first two home games of the Mountain West season, UNLV drew 5,760 fans against New Mexico and 5,992 against Utah State. Those figures are dwarfed by the 12,414 at San Diego State and the sellout crowd of 8,083 at Colorado State.

It’s hard to see UNLV gaining much traction mid-season in terms of attendance, so it will be up to the players to provide their own intensity.

While Webster said he has been pleasantly surprised by the size and volume of the crowds at the Mack this season, he and his teammates can’t rely on that external boost from the fans.

“We know on certain nights we have to bring our own energy,” Webster said. “Whoever shows up, whoever’s out there, we’ve got to try to feed off of whoever’s there.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at

Article written by #LasVegasSun