Practice is under way for the UNLV men’s basketball team. They’re coming off a season where they went 18-14, their most wins in four years.
The Runnin’ Rebels finished in fifth place in a competitive Mountain West Conference, where the four teams ahead of them all qualified for the NCAA Tournament.
Coming into this year, they only have six returning players: senior guard Justin Webster, senior forward Victor Iwuakor, senior center David Muoka, sophomore guard Keshon Gilbert, fifth-year guard Jordan McCabe and walkon senior guard Cameron Burist.
Of the nine new players on the 15-man roster, six of them are transfers from other Division-I schools. McCabe could sense a good type of tension early on, feeling that the first few months of the team being together was a competitive vibe.
However, that subsided and since then, the team has grown together as a unit.
“You find that early on guys don’t know each other that well,” McCabe said. “They’re kind of feeling each other out and they’re going at each other. It’s uncomfortable sometimes you know, everybody wants minutes. And then after that, you get out of the other side of that competition.”
McCabe believes that the Runnin’ Rebels are “extremely close” now. That they’ve reached a level of chemistry that’s beyond minutes or personal success. They’re heading into the upcoming season with winning games on all of their minds.
Head coach Kevin Kruger isn’t worried much about the chemistry at all. Even though there are nine new players on his team, he believes the experience the transfers bring from their previous schools has helped accelerate the process of getting everyone on the same page.
“We have an older group,” Kruger said. “So they understand that it’s about results. It’s not just about going out there and running around and playing, it’s about getting out there and getting results and getting wins.”
Kruger said that mindset has helped to increase the level of competition in practice.
UNLV got a taste of game action earlier in August during three exhibition games they played in Canada. The Runnin’ Rebels won two of their three games up there, Kruger wasn’t necessarily focused on the wins and losses
“Canada was more about us just getting opportunities and repetitions as a group. We got to learn a lot about each other,” Kruger said. “Being put in situations that maybe we’re not used to as players.”
The biggest takeaway for Kruger was seeing the team deal with adversity. Specifically, how the Runnin’ Rebels reacted after a loss. Kruger said he was impressed with how his group responded after losing the opening game of their Canadian Tour.
The Runnin’ Rebels are coming off one of their better seasons in recent years, but had a heartbreaking 59-56 loss in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Tournament against Wyoming last season.
McCabe doesn’t feel any added pressure to do better than last year, he said it’s more of an expectation.
“18 wins last year is good, but 20 wins is your benchmark,” McCabe said. “That’s always been the benchmark in college basketball for a good season. We were shy of that. So we need to find a way to get to that goal and then give ourselves a real chance at making the tournament.”
Kruger couldn’t agree more with McCabe, saying that there isn’t any added pressure. The second-year head coach and former Runnin’ Rebel point guard has an understanding of where the program should be.
The Runnin’ Rebels haven’t made the NCAA Tournament in nearly 10 years. Kruger knows it’d be great to get back there, but he’s more worried about getting off to a good start of the season.
The Runnin’ Rebels open their 2022-2023 season on Nov. 7 against Southern University at 7:15 p.m. at the Thomas & Mack Center.