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Tough questions ahead for UNLV basketball after losing the opener

  • November 11, 2023

Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels guard Luis Rodriguez (15) leaves the court after an 85-71 loss to the Southern University Jaguars during the second half of an NCAA basketball game in Thomas. & Mack Center on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023.

Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023 | 10:43 p.m

What happened at the Thomas & Mack Center on Wednesday was shocking, disappointing and deeply disappointing. And now UNLV has to go on.

The Scarlet and Gray didn’t just lose to visiting Southern at the start of the season, they were burned for 40 minutes by a team that entered as huge underdogs. For most of the second half, the game was non-competitive, as the Jaguars continued to lead by more than 20 points before ending UNLV, 85-71.

Kevin Kruger’s team, which had NCAA Tournament dreams, now has to find a way to pick up the pieces after the most dramatic loss in program history.

Here are a few big-picture questions facing UNLV:

How bad will this loss hurt?

It’s really bad.

UNLV entered the night at No. 75 in KenPom’s preseason rankings, while Southern came in at No. 326. There are only 362 Division I teams, so that gives an idea of ​​the low esteem in which the Jaguars are held. Also, they lost their opener to TCU by 33 points on Monday.

So, expect UNLV to drop down the rankings in a big, big way.

What can Kruger do to keep the team together?

Fifth-year guard Justin Webster and sophomore forward Isaiah Cottrell were understandably stressed at UNLV’s postgame news conference, and it’s safe to assume the rest of the team felt the same way. They came to this season expecting to play their way in the competition; others, like senior Jalen Hill, used their final year of eligibility to transfer to UNLV because they believed a special season was in store.

After forty minutes, all that is at stake.

“Obviously we’re hurt,” Webster said. “We will not let it get to us. Long season. Obviously we are hurt by this loss.”

Is it the kind of loss that can break a team’s morale and derail the rest of the season? Kruger doesn’t think so.

The third-year coach said he will lean on his veterans and hopes they will continue to fight.

“We’re not making heroic speeches yet,” Kruger said. “This is a team that has faced problems before. Everyone in that locker room has a night they look back on and wish they could have. Unfortunately, we learned our lesson early here. ”

We will have to see how they fare against Stetson on Saturday, after two days of practice and meditation. If they play with the same lack of urgency that we saw against Southern, that will be a very bad sign.

What happened?

In court, nothing seemed to be going well. Offensively, UNLV shot well under 40% until garbage time baskets boosted their percentage; on the other hand, the defense was completely destroyed by the Southern team who seemed to have a quick advantage in all areas.

Kruger said Southern frustrated UNLV by playing with a high intensity.

“We’ve been rushed across the board,” Kruger said. “That’s what you have when you’re shy. If you think too much, you can get less speed. I think that was our story in the first half. We weren’t just playing, we were thinking a lot.”

Webster saw warning signs leading up to the game.

“We started taking things for granted,” Webster said. “We weren’t doing the little details in practice, and it finally caught up to us.”

Could that be UNLV playing its opener, while Southern gets a game under its belt a few days earlier? It is possible. But the Scarlet and Gray will need players to be decisive and strong in everything they do.

It starts in the guard area. Freshman DJ Thomas made his collegiate debut and navigated a rough first half (two points, five turnovers) before turning in an even better showing in the final 20 minutes (12 points, zero turnovers).

“After the break, you could see he took a breather, got his feet under him,” Kruger said.

If UNLV gets a second-half version of Thomas going forward, it should have a positive impact down the stretch. That’s a lot of responsibility to put on a new person, and under the right circumstances, he may have little time to adjust. It’s gone now. UNLV needs Thomas to be big.

Can the Runnin’ Rebels turn it around?

It’s tempting to say that UNLV’s season will now be reduced to four days in March, when their only hope will be a surprise run in the Mountain West Tournament, but that’s not true – yet. They can handle one bad loss. They just removed their margin of error and everything.

Currently, there are four opponents in the program ranked in the AP Top 25, so there will be opportunities to make up for Southern’s loss. The bigger, more obvious question is, can UNLV win those games? Or is this group not as good as we thought?

UNLV shot 9-of-29 from 3-point range and only converted 8-of-15 layups and dunks. That’s a bad offense, and that percentage will have to go up a lot if the Scarlet and Gray want to make non-conference play.

Defensively, there is still a lot of work to be done. Southern shot a blistering 56.7%, and it was no fluke – the Jaguars drove to the basket for uncontested layups, taking advantage of the lack of rim protection on UNLV’s side.

The return of Kalib Boone could help with that. The fifth-year, 6-foo-9 senior is UNLV’s starting center, but was suspended due to a DUI arrest last month. He’ll fit right in with Stetson, and Kruger should hope he can protect the paint.

It will take a lot of work, and UNLV gave little reason to believe Wednesday but count Kruger among the optimists who don’t think the season is over.

“I still feel good about this team,” said Kruger. “I think if we watch the film and start practice tomorrow, we will be a different team on Saturday. That’s for sure.”