Back in January, the Runnin’ Rebels returned to their regular conference season ready to dominate, but they concluded the season with a 12-15. With new head coach Kevin Kruger, the team is determined to turn things around for this upcoming season.
“A lot of excitement and anxiety, but the healthy kind, like butterflies. The first thing I was nervous about was the eight weeks in the summer and how we are going to maximize that time,” Kruger said. “Every workout is important and we need to get everything we need out of it. A lot of healthy anxiety is the best way to put it.”
This season, the Rebels welcomed a multitude of new transfer students with college basketball experience, like Mike Nuga from Kent State, who averaged 17.8 points per game and 5.5 rebounds. Some were returning Rebels, like Bryce Hamilton, who averaged 17.9 points per game and 6 rebounds.
“We, as coaches, want to put them in a spot where they can do what they do best,” Kruger said. “We will be paying a lot of attention to details on how do we get them into these opportunities. We want the guys to play free, comfortable and confident, but it’s definitely our responsibility to put them in those positions for them to capitalize and help the team win.”
Royce Hamm Jr. transferred from the University of Texas and is in his last year of NCAA eligibility. He averaged 2.5 rebounds per game and has a goal percentage of 52.8 percent.
“Aside from his experience, the best thing about Royce is his energy, his attitude, and his approach. I don’t know if you can be around Royce and not feel better about your day or yourself,” Kruger said. “It might be shaped from having four years of experience, but I think that is something that he brings. His consistency in his personality is something that is going to wear off on everybody.”
With the new players, the coaching staff has put an emphasis on the importance of team chemistry, a necessary element to make a successful team. Chemistry needs to be built not only on the court, but off the court as well.
“We are all coming from different parts of the country, so that was a very heavy focus this summer,” senior guard Jordan McCabe said. “Understanding that we have a lot of new guys coming from different situations. Some guys playing two minutes a game and some guys playing 25 to 28 minutes a game at different levels takes a lot of work in terms of stuff that happens on the court.”
McCabe is a transfer student from West Virginia University. He comes in as a junior at 6-feet tall and 160 pounds. According to the senior guard, he moved from “one competitive atmosphere” to “another competitive atmosphere.” However, he stuck with UNLV because of his trust in Kruger as well as his confidence in leading the team.
“One or two weeks in, we had done more team stuff off the court that spoke to cohesion and getting to know each other than I’ve ever done in my entire basketball career up until that point,” McCabe said. “We hit that very hard, and it’s paid dividends already and this feels like a family.”
Last season, McCabe played 11 minutes per game while averaging 2.2 points per game and 1.4 assists. He averaged 31 percent from the field, 21.2 percent from the three point line and 81.8 percent from the free throw line.
“We have guys that know their role, and my role is to lead them, get guys going to get open shots and to put guys before myself,” McCabe said. “That is something coach Kruger has continued to teach me.”
UNLV’s upcoming schedule features big schools like the Michigan University Wolverines (Nov. 19-21) who are a part of the Big Ten Conference.
“The schedule is very competitive,” Kruger said. “We added two closed door scrimmages that are going to be very competitive as well. We did that by design. By having an older group, we wanted to throw them into the fire quickly and give them those opportunities to continue to improve because there isn’t an easy game on the schedule. It’s exciting being a part of UNLV.”
The Michigan Wolverines have won one NCAA Championship, two National Invitation Tournaments and 15 Big Ten Conference titles. The Wolverines ranked ninth in the Big Ten Conference last season with 19-12.
“When you look at the schedule, you can pull one really big thing out of there and that’s: UNLV fears no one,” McCabe said. “We put everyone on the schedule that is willing to play us at the highest possible level. You have Michigan and Arizona with a handful of other high-maintenance schools. In order to be in that final four heavyweight contention, you have to knock somebody out that has been there and done that in recent years.”
The Runnin’ Rebels are waiting for their non-conference schedule to be released, but they look forward to kicking off the new year with a conference match against San Diego State.