Tuesday, March 23, 2010 | 2:15 a.m.
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Ryan Greene and Ray Brewer wrap up the 2009-10 UNLV men's basketball season by discussing the highs and lows from along the way for the 25-9 Rebels. The guys give the season a grade overall and take a look at what the future holds for Lon Kruger's program.
Questions for Kruger?
Have questions heading into the offseason and into next season for UNLV coach Lon Kruger? Relay them to Ryan Greene at firstname.lastname@example.org, and in the next couple of weeks he'll have a chance to relay your queries to the Rebels' leader, with the answers presented here at lasvegassun.com/rebels. And, as always, please keep your questions within reason.
When the Panthers became America's hoops darling Saturday by upsetting the Jayhawks, who were the NCAA tournament's top overall seed, tears flowed and few words were said as Kansas retreated to its expansive locker room at the Ford Center.
Expectations were high across the country for a veteran KU club to run rampant through the field and emerge with a second national title in three years.
Two nights earlier, it was UNLV that was left collecting itself in the depths of the building. However, the Rebels — who, like the Jayhawks, were done in by a clutch 3-pointer from Ali Farokhmanesh — were more in shock than anything.
There wasn't as much of a final feeling among the UNLV players and staff, because while it was an abrupt end of a long season, the 25-9 Rebels not only surpassed preseason expectations, but will return almost their entire roster next season in a quest to advance further.
"When you have seniors, it's a little more deep of a wound because you don't line up again," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "When you do have underclassmen, even thought it hurts, your mind starts turning to 'let's get back to work and make a positive out of this.'"
Both reflecting on the 2009-10 season and looking ahead to the 2010-11 campaign, here are 10 talking points of note ...
1) When looking for a signature performance from this season, look no further than Feb. 6 An 88-74 victory at home over BYU wasn't nearly as close as the final score made it look, as the Cougars were never a threat.
Tre'Von Willis scored a career-high 33 points for UNLV, BYU's Jimmer Fredette scored an inconsequential 21 on 4-of-15 shooting and the most anticipated home game of the season was played in front of a raucous, sellout crowd of 18,557.
Everything about this game was big-time, and it vaulted UNLV back into the Top 25 polls. The Rebels shot an unconscious 64.5 percent from the floor and hit nine of their 13 3-point attempts en route to building a 22-point halftime lead.
2) ... and after that came the unexpected A three-game losing streak on the heels of the victory over BYU was low-lighted by two of UNLV's three worst performances of the season, coming in a 68-58 loss Feb. 10 at San Diego State and then a 66-61 loss at Utah four nights later.
Against SDSU, the Aztecs showed just how tough of a time UNLV had against long, athletic front lines, as Billy White, Malcolm Thomas and Kawhi Leonard combined for 36 points, 24 rebounds and six blocked shots. UNLV had trouble creating offense and was just 19-of-54 from the floor.
The Utah performance was just as ugly. Willis caught fire late and scored 32 points, but missed an opportunity for an open drive to the bucket late and misfired on an awkward 3-point look. The Rebels were cursed from before the start, as Matt Shaw sprained his ankle in pre-game warm-ups, and outside of Willis, the Rebels were a combined 12-of-33 from the floor and 0-for-9 from 3-point range.
3) The MVP was without question Willis, while the most improved Rebel was ... Anthony Marshall. The freshman guard was the guy who UNLV needed more than anyone to provide the all-around support in the back-court that the Rebels lost when Derrick Jasper went down Jan. 26 against Air Force.
In those final 13 games, Marshall rapidly improved as his minutes increased, and he ultimately wound up a fixture in the starting lineup in the final 10 contests. In that 13-game stretch, he averaged 6.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals a night, all while shooting 62.5 percent from the floor. He had two double-doubles after working his way into the starting rotation.
Defensively, with his 7-foot wingspan, the 6-foot-3 Mojave High product became a terror in the backcourt, and with his incredible leaping ability, he showed he could be an adept rebounder.
Now, the next step is improving on his weaknesses. Among them include improving on a 34-of-62 performance this season at the free throw line, a 1-for-23 showing from 3-point range and his penchant, at times, for turnovers, as he recorded 30 in the final 13 games. His shot looked good in practice down the stretch, but now the trick is incorporating it into game situations.
Once it comes together, he has star potential written all over him.
4) Derrick Jasper's grade this season? Incomplete When Jasper went down Jan. 26, the partial tear of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee was diagnosed with a four-to-six-week recovery period.
Instead, he never played again, but did start to look like himself in practices at the end of the season.
The unfortunate part for Jasper was that after spending last year re-rehabbing from knee surgery following his freshman season at Kentucky, it finally was starting to click for him just before he went down in a freak incident at the end of the first half in the victory over Air Force. To that point in the game, he had three points, four defensive boards, four assists and no turnovers.
He finished the year averaging 6.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. That's the type of all-around help UNLV will hope for next season from the 6-foot-6 Jasper as a senior. The key to it all is being at his peak mentally after undergoing a serious injury to his left knee for the second time in his college career.
5) What was lacking? Consistent rebounding and physical presence In eight of UNLV's nine losses this season, the Rebels were out-rebounded, by an average margin of 8.3. The worst of those came in the Feb. 10 home loss to New Mexico, when the Rebels were out-boarded 45-23 on their home floor.
Of course, that can snowball into bigger problems, such as second-chance points and devastating missed opportunities to get out into transition.
The team that exposed UNLV more than anyone else was San Diego State, with its three-headed athletic monster of White, Thomas and Leonard inside. UNLV was out-rebounded 120-91 in those three games combined, while the Rebels had a hard time on offense driving and finishing against that size.
"There's several things we could have done better," Kruger said. "The biggest thing is being physical on the boards, rebounding consistently. When we lost ball games, it seemed oftentimes that played into it. That kind of ties into a year where we could have been more physical, which I think we can improve on going into next year."
6) A general lack of turnover certainly won't hurt While UNLV had a couple of lingering issues this season, returning nine members of an 11-man rotation that won 25 games can't be a bad thing.
The Rebels averaged 73.1 points per game this season, and 91.8 percent of that scoring will return for 2010-11.
Considering that six players in that 11-man rotation didn't play for Kruger the year before, now the focus is more on general improvement this summer rather than getting new players acclimated.
7) There will be a couple of fresh faces, though Kruger and his staff hope that the need for more of a physical presence not only will be answered by a summer full of growth for those returning, but also with the addition of two big bodies.
Six-foot-8 sophomore Quintrell Thomas, who transferred last summer from Kansas, added a physical presence on the practice floor upon his return from shoulder surgery. His offensive game will undergo some work this summer, but he's a natural enforcer who plays with an edge that the Rebels could have used this year.
As for 6-foot-11 freshman Carlos Lopez, he added roughly 15 pounds of muscle during his redshirt season and cut his body fat down significantly. He may never be the banger inside that Thomas is, but he'll be able to stretch the floor out with his inside-outside game and ability to handle the ball.
"Those guys help," Kruger said. "But the guys coming back, Brice is going to do so much more, Matt has to do so much more, we have to get Derrick back bigger and stronger. More importantly, they'll understand the value and significance of getting loose balls. It's not just the physical part of it, but the understanding that that's what cost us some ball games."
8) There could be another name in the fold, too Kruger and his staff largely have turned their recruiting focus to the 2011 and 2012 recruiting classes, which will have to be deep as that's when they'll begin losing more contributors off of the current roster.
Last week, the Rebels drew a huge commitment from Grandy Glaze, who will be a senior next season at Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass. The 6-foot-6, strong power forward has plenty of charisma and enthusiasm, plus the kind of attitude the coaching staff is looking for in a big man. He's also very skilled in transition, which fits UNLV's system nicely. The program still has at least three scholarships to fill in the 2011 class, and nabbing Glaze early gave them a nice head start on that effort, as Rivals.com ranks him as the No. 83 prospect in the 2011 crop.
Joseph, who Rivals.com ranks as the No. 7 recruit in the 2010 class, will decide in the next few weeks between — in no particular order — UNLV, Minnesota, Villanova, UConn and Texas.
The only official visit Polee has taken was to UNLV on Nov. 28, when the Rebels downed Louisville, 76-61. He still has four Pac-10 suitors along with UNLV, who paid him another visit over the weekend in California.
The staff also has its eyes on a few other under-the-radar prospects who likely would be redshirts next season, along with incoming 6-foot-11 freshman shot-blocker Henry Buckley, who still is attempting to qualify academically and will take the ACT exam next month.
UNLV doesn't have a dire need for a freshman to fit into the rotation next season, though. Whose minutes would either Joseph or Polee cut in to? Not that Kruger & Co. would say no to either of them.
9) Expectations, expectations, expectations The expectations will be higher next season for Kruger and his program than they were going into any of his first six campaigns.
This year, the Rebels made their third NCAA tournament appearance in the last four seasons, but it was the first time under Kruger in which UNLV exited from the field of 65 in the first round.
Expectations from the outside will be for a deeper run, most likely into the second weekend at the least.
Inside, Kruger doesn't want his team looking that far ahead.
"I can understand the expectations," he said. "The key for this group, though, is the focus and attention we give to the offseason. The natural thought is we did this and that, next year we want to do more. That's a trick. It's hard to make the NCAA tournament. Our focus has to be on becoming a lot better, not dwell on what we need to do to go deeper in the tournament. We need to become a better team in the offseason."
10) As for the rest of the Mountain West ...
The record four berths into the NCAA tourney for the Mountain West Conference is a feat that easily could be repeated in 2011.
San Diego State returns all five starters from a team that went 25-9, plus several reserves. The Aztecs also add Santa Clara transfer James Rahon in the back-court — a 3-point gunner who can handle the ball — and still will be the league's most athletic club.
New Mexico, which went 30-5, brings back first team All-Mountain West point guard Dairese Gary (13.1 ppg, 3.9 apg), sharp-shooting combo-guard Phillip McDonald (10.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg) and center A.J. Hardeman (7.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg). The wild card is whether junior do-it-all forward Darington Hobson (15.9 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 4.6 apg) — the league's Player of the Year in his first season as a Lobo — comes back or tests the NBA Draft waters. Surely, he'll feel things out at the very least.
BYU, which like New Mexico won 30 games for the first time in program history, finally ended its NCAA tournament hex by getting out of the first round for the first time since 1993 last weekend in OKC. If junior super-scorer Jimmer Fredette (22.1 ppg, 4.7 apg, 3.1 rpg) returns to school, the Cougars will have four starters back.
But the league can't afford to simply be top-heavy in a year when the MWC will have a good amount of the nation's attention going into the season. Programs such as Colorado State, TCU and Utah need to be formidable.