Runnin’ Rebels looking towards a program turnaround with new roster

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Keshon Gilbert (10) and Justin Webster (2) showing excitement after a teammate hit a 3-pointer during UNLV's game against UC Berkeley on Nov. 13, 2021. Photo by Jordan Anders-McClain.

Monday begins the Runnin’ Rebels’ five-month quest toward a common goal.

“The mentality is March Madness or bust,” senior guard Jordan McCabe said. “We want to be in the tournament.”

UNLV failed to qualify for the tournament every year since 2013, marking the longest tournament drought in program history. Despite the rough patch, UNLV’s roster seems poised to compete in head coach Kevin Kruger’s second season with a diverse cast of talents. 

The Runnin’ Rebels’ new roster hits the floor for their season opener Monday night against Southern University at the Thomas & Mack Center.

UNLV’s roster consists of six returning members, with the remaining nine players on UNLV’s roster consisting of fresh faces.  Guard Keyshawn Hall is the only freshman on the team. 

A key addition to UNLV’s roster this year is guard EJ Harkless, a fifth-year transfer from Oklahoma. Harkless played during Lon Kruger’s (Kevin Kruger’s father) last season of coaching. Jordan McCabe had high praise for his former opponent turned teammate.

“He’s extremely smart,” McCabe said. “His basketball IQ is through the roof. We’re going to look to him to score and be a point of our balanced scoring attack this year.”

UNLV began its preparation with ten preseason workouts before its five-day Canada trip. The trip included three preseason matchups, two of the three games ended in wins for the Rebels. The trip allowed players to build solid chemistry with each other.

“It’s been pretty cool,” Harkless said. “The hard part was getting on the same page on the basketball court. I think we’re doing a better job at that.” 

Kruger saw this year’s trip as useful to jump-start the roster.

“I thought the trip was huge,” he said. “ You’ve got your core, your culture and way of life that you can kind of have a head start on.”

Kruger also sees consistency playing a critical role in the team’s success this year.

“I think if we could be consistent for 40 minutes, we’re going to give ourselves a chance to win every game,” he said.

Consistency reigns supreme in the team’s attitude. Consistency alongside a love for the job they do radiates as the culture Kruger looks to set in his second year at the helm. 

“We want this to be thought of as a place where guys want to be,” Kruger said.

McCabe, who is in his last year of college basketball and one of the few holdovers from last season’s team, is tasked with setting that culture.

“It’s rooted in the fact that we enjoy what we do on a daily basis,” McCabe said. “That’s the culture of UNLV, love coming to work.”

Kruger and his staff place a serious emphasis on defense throughout their practices. Much of practice focuses on fine-tuning a defensive scheme that displayed itself during their Canada trip. The defense defines the Runnin’ Rebels and who they intend to be on the court. 

“Our defensive identity is a lot different,” McCabe said. “Last year, I think we relied a lot on our natural ability to defend. Now there’s a lot more structure.”

Harkless, who is expected to make an impact offensively, is also embracing the defense-first mindset.

“We’re going to be a good defensive team, and a good defensive team has to be physical,” Harkless said. “I think we have those tools.”

The Runnin’ Rebels understand that their effort must be complemented with results when it matters most.

“All the work that we’ve put in is not guaranteeing us anything other than an opportunity,” Harkless said. “We put in the work and we still may come up short. But as long as you’ve put in the work and you’re satisfied with the work you’ve put in, it’s all good.”

Kruger and the Runnin’ Rebels’ expectations are lofty, but this Rebels team seem more set to accomplish it than ever. Kruger said that this roster knows what the end goal is year in and year out.

“They understand at the end of the day winning games for UNLV is the ultimate goal,” he said.

Game Day 

UNLV vs Southern University

Monday, 7:15 p.m. at Thomas & Mack Center

Listen: KUNV 91.5 The Rebel HD2

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