Friday, Nov. 13, 2009 | 2 a.m.
KRUGER AT UNLV
- 2004-05 — 17-14
- 2005-06 — 17-13
- 2006-07 — 30-7
- 2007-08 — 27-8
- 2008-09 — 21-11
- Overall — 112-53
IF YOU GO
- What: UNLV vs. Pittsburg State
- When: 7 p.m. Saturday
- 2006-07 — 30-7
- Where: Thomas & Mack Center
- Tickets: $8-$28; unlvtickets.com
UNLV basketball coach Lon Kruger knew Super Bowl Sunday was the pivotal point of last season.
His players bolted from the Thomas & Mack Center to watch the big game. The previous night, they won at Air Force by 21 points to boost their record to 17-4.
Fool’s gold, Kruger thought. They weren’t fully vested in the defensive side of the ball. They weren’t committed. There wasn’t conviction. Kruger knew they would pay.
He gritted his teeth at a writer inside the near-empty arena. We have to fight, he implored … the way he did when he played at Kansas State.
It was a rare flash of emotion from a coach who prides himself on stability, on never being too high or too low, because he sets the example.
And it was pinpoint accurate, because the Rebels went 4-7 the rest of the way to finish a season full of expectations — UNLV had played in five NCAA tournament games in the previous two years — with a resounding thud.
Between bites of a pepperoni and sausage pizza recently, with his usual water at his side, Kruger reflected on the bitter taste of last season and his Super Bowl grit.
“We just never quite had that edge,” he said. “I don’t take pride in that. It’s my job to help them overcome that and we didn’t do that. We expected it to happen and that’s not the way it works.
“We learned that lesson the hard way.”
A defeat at Kentucky in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament capped the season of ignominious losses.
Early on, the Rebels lost to California and Cincinnati in the Global Sports Classic. It was the first time since January 1981 that UNLV had lost at home on consecutive days.
Toward the end of the regular season, the Rebels didn’t even register 50 points in back-to-back games (a win and a loss) for the first time since the first season of the program, in 1958-59.
And just two days after Kruger bared his teeth at the arena, the Rebels lost at home to San Diego State, then at New Mexico, in overtime; the first time UNLV had dropped consecutive OT games.
With some new faces and a new focus, Kruger, 57, is hopeful about his sixth season at UNLV, which starts Saturday night against Pittsburg State at the Thomas & Mack.
“I think this group truly excites him,” said a close associate of Kruger’s.
“The most important thing is the readiness, the focus … totally throwing yourself into every possession and being totally oblivious to anything else but getting that result,” Kruger said. “When a player does that, it stands out.”
A low-post game would help, and Massamba, Santee and Matt Shaw, off a redshirt season after knee surgery, will have to produce, at least by committee, in the paint.
“We haven’t rebounded the ball well the last couple of seasons,” Kruger said. “That’s an area of concern. Will this group take that on as a challenge, go overboard and do a really good job? You don’t know how they’ll react.”
As bad as some of last season’s pockmarks were, fans still supported the Rebels. Their average Mack attendance of 13,446 was the second-highest in 17 seasons and it was their first figure above 13,000 since 1998-99. It’s probably no coincidence that Kruger took over part of the marketing of his team last season.
The crowd of 18,523 that packed the Mack for the 75-74 victory over BYU was impressive, but none of those people will ever see The Grit.
Former UNLV swingman Curtis Terry knows all about Kruger gritting his teeth.
That means something isn’t right.
“I’ve seen that face,” said Terry, in a serious tone, before he left for Africa to play for a team in Angola.
Kevin Kruger might have seen it more than anyone else on the planet. Lon’s only son left Arizona State, under an obscure rule that only lasted a year, to lead UNLV to the Sweet 16 in 2007.
“That’s when you know he’s mad,” Kevin Kruger said before he left for Europe and a team in Naples, Italy. “He grits his teeth when he’s mad.” Rebels assistant coach Steve Henson hasn’t played for Kruger in 19 years, at Kansas State, but he is quickly transported to those days when he sees The Grit.
“When I see that look now, it gets me fired up in some cases and angry in other cases,” Henson said. “Some coaches yell, holler and throw a fit. He just has a look that gets your attention.”
If this season’s Rebels don’t see that expression, they’re doing just fine.