Although the UNLV basketball team’s stay in the NCAA Tournament was a short one, the program is in position for bigger and better things next season—with an emphasis on “bigger.”
The Rebels exceeded most expectations this season in what was considered a rebuilding year for coach Lon Kruger after the team lost three of its top four scorers. UNLV won 25 games and gained an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament. Even the team’s 69-66 first-round loss to No. 9 seed Northern Iowa looks a lot better after the Panthers shocked No. 1 seed Kansas, 69-67, in the second round.
With only forward Darris Santee and walk-on guard Steve Jones not returning to the Rebels, Kruger’s seventh season at UNLV could feature his most talented roster. Back will be guards Tre’Von Willis, Oscar Bellfield, Kendall Wallace, Derrick Jasper, Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins; and forwards Chace Stanback, Matt Shaw and Brice Massamba, all of whom averaged at least 12 minutes per game this season.
Those returning players accounted for 92 percent of scoring, 87 percent of rebounds and 97 percent of assists for the Rebels, who, despite their success this season, were most vulnerable against teams with significant size. UNLV lost twice during Mountain West Conference play to a mediocre Utah team, which used 7-foot-3-inch center David Foster, the MWC Defensive Player of the Year, effectively against the Rebels. And during a three-game losing streak in February against New Mexico, San Diego State and Utah, UNLV was outrebounded by a combined total of 118-81, including an embarrassing 45-23 difference at home against the Lobos.
Being at a size disadvantage against most opponents should not be an issue next season, however. Redshirts Carlos Lopez and Quintrell Thomas should give the Rebels a presence in the post they haven’t had since Joel Anthony and Gaston Essengue patrolled the paint during UNLV’s Sweet 16 season of 2006-07. Lopez, a 6-11 freshman from Findlay Prep, and Thomas, a 6-8 sophomore transfer from Kansas, should team with Shaw and Massamba to give Kruger his biggest, most talented front line at UNLV.
Just because the Rebels should be better next season, however, doesn’t mean they should have an easier time getting invited to the NCAA Tournament. UNLV was one of four Mountain West teams to receive NCAA berths this season—along with New Mexico, BYU and San Diego State—and the league should be stronger next season. The Lobos have four starters, including MWC Player of the Year Darington Hobson, returning next season; sharpshooting guard Jimmer Fredette heads four returning starters for the Cougars; and the Aztecs return four starters who earned at least an All-MWC Honorable Mention nod, including forward Kawhi Leonard, who was named first-team all-conference as a freshman.
UNLV still has one scholarship left for next season, and is hopeful that Findlay Prep point guard Cory Joseph will fill that slot. The Rebels did get a commitment earlier this month from 6-6 prep forward Grandy Glaze for the program’s 2011 class. The Rebels’ future also looks brighter with the announcement earlier this month of a proposed $12 million, 38,000-square-foot basketball practice facility that will be attached to Cox Pavilion and could be completed by next spring.