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NIT_ UNLV vs Boston College

Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels head coach Kevin Kruger reacts to a play during the second half of an NCAA basketball game against the Boston College Eagles in the second round of the NIT tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center Sunday, March 24, 2024.

The college basketball transfer portal has been open for almost a month, and while news has been slow to trickle out of Maryland Parkway, UNLV head coach Kevin Kruger and his staff have been working behind the scenes to secure veteran players to boost the 2024-25 roster.

After returning from the Final Four, Kruger said most of his time has been spent scouting the portal and recruiting. UNLV has three open scholarships as of now, and the team could probably stand to add multiple starters via the portal.

Last year, the team added seniors Kalib Boone, Keylan Boone and Jalen Hill, and while Hill suffered a season-ending injury in January, the Boones helped power the Scarlet and Gray to a 21-13 record — the program’s best mark since 2012-13 — and a run to the NIT quarterfinals.

With the team eyeing an NCAA Tournament push in 2024-25, right now the focus is all portal, all the time.

“It’s definitely the majority of our brain space, but not because we’re in a panic,” Kruger said. “We’re kind of on the other end of the spectrum as the past couple years. We love the guys we’ve got coming back, and we have more people coming back. We feel like we’re in a really good spot, but because of the way calendar is set up, things happen fast, so you’ve got to be ready. There’s going to be a flood of names here for the rest of the month. We just want to make sure we add the right guys to the roster.”

Unlike the past two years under Kruger, UNLV will return its best player, as point guard D.J. Thomas is set to pilot the team once again as a sophomore. Frontcourt stalwart Rob Whaley will also be back as a senior.

With that core in place, Kruger said the team has been able to take a more focused approach to the portal since the transfer market opened on March 18.

Kruger said the staff casts a wide net, but that they’ve narrowed down their search to fewer names than in recent years. That should help them move quickly, which is pivotal when dealing with veteran transfers on a condensed timeline.

On Monday UNLV landed its first commitment via the portal, as 6-foot-7 wing Jaden Henley pledged to the Scarlet and Gray. Henley began his college career with one season at Minnesota, and last year he averaged 8.6 points per game at DePaul. He will have two years of eligibility remaining when he lands at UNLV.

Henley visited UNLV over the weekend and announced his commitment the following day on Instagram. That’s how fast things move during portal season.

“Visits happen immediately, and a lot of decisions are made on visits,” Kruger said. “It’s not like recruiting a high-school kid, where you may have multiple years in terms of building relationships. You’re calling and talking and gauging interest, and you’re doing it very quickly.”

Henley is the type of player UNLV could really use, as there are plenty of available minutes on the wings. And he’s the type of player Kruger and his staff have had success with via the portal before, as previous transfer wings like Donovan Williams, E.J. Harkless, Luis Rodriguez and Keylan Boone have all performed well for the Scarlet and Gray.

Kruger said it’s a combination of scouting and the players’ work ethic that has allowed veteran wings to thrive at UNLV.

“It’s not like we have some secret formula,” he said. “We watch a lot of film, watch a lot of games. We look at guys that, if given the opportunity, could have success. Donovan Williams was a heck of a talent, but he kind of got stuck behind some older guys at Texas, and the opportunity was here for more minutes.”

Another area where UNLV will be active in the portal is big men. A reliable starting center is a need with Kalib Boone graduating and taking his 11.4 points and 5.2 rebounds per game with him.

Kruger said Boone’s post-up skill set will be difficult to replicate, and the staff isn’t locked into replacing him with another back-to-the basket big.

“Kalib was very unique, and there’s not a lot of players in college basketball like him,” Kruger said. “If you can get a guy like that, it’s something you’d love to have, but we’re definitely open to different styles.”

A center with some face-up skills or pick-and-roll ability would open up the floor for Thomas, something Kruger is making a priority heading into next year.

“We’ve got D.J. returning, and we want to have more possessions. That’s something we got away from last year, with injuries and some guys being asked to do things they were maybe not necessarily used to doing, it slowed our pace a little bit. We were a little slower than we wanted to be. We would definitely be open to a situation where we could have more possessions and get the ball in transition.”

Those are some pretty big changes, but that’s the nature of the portal. The transfer window closes on May 1, and there’s a good chance UNLV will look very different by then.

Hill progressing on road to recovery

Jalen Hill was projected to be a major contributor last season, but a wrist injury kept him out for the final four weeks of non-conference play, and when he returned, he managed just 14 minutes against San Diego State on Jan. 6 before a torn ACL sidelined him for the rest of the year.

All told, Hill appeared in seven games and totaled 75 points and 43 rebounds on the season.

Kruger said Hill plans to petition the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility, and the team expects that to be granted.

Hill will be about 11 months out from surgery when the 2024-25 season begins. According to Kruger, his rehab is going well and Hill should be up to speed by opening night.

“He’s doing great,” Kruger said. “He’s in a good situation because he’s ahead of schedule, but at the same time, with the date of the injury there’s not necessarily a rush. There’s nothing but positive to be where he’s at. He’s got a lot of optimism that he’s going to have a good amount of time so he can be at full strength when he is finally cleared to go.”

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

Article written by #LasVegasSun