Surrounded by success, UNLV men’s basketball is “runnin’” forward

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Members of the UNLV men's basketball team huddle around head coach Kevin Kruger during a practice earlier this season at the Thomas & Mack Center. Photo by Jake Ideguchi-Furukawa.

Las Vegas won its first professional sports championship when the Aces defeated the Connecticut Sun to claim the WNBA title earlier this year.

The UNLV women’s basketball team won both the Mountain West regular-season and tournament championships for the first time in program history. The Lady Rebels finished with a 26-7 record, their most wins in nearly three decades, and earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years.

Both squads made history in their own regards. Now it poses a question: Is Las Vegas beginning to create a winning sports culture? Aside from the successful women’s basketball teams, other sports have had strong starts.

The UNLV football team won four of its first five, but after losing six in a row, this season might be lost, but the future could be bright. On the ice, the Las Vegas Golden Knights are in first place in the Western Conference and Pacific Division with the help of a nine-game winning streak earlier this month.

On the hardwood, the UNLV men’s basketball team is in an interesting spot as they’ve seen the other two major basketball programs here in Las Vegas (the Lady Rebels and Aces) have successful seasons. 

There’s been a feeling of them being left behind, but that isn’t all true. The Runnin’ Rebels are coming off a season where they went 18-14, their most wins in four years. They also 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 had 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 walk-on senior guard Cameron Burist.

Of the nine new players on the 15-man roster, six of them were 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 had a “competitive vibe.”

McCabe believes that the Runnin’ Rebels reached a level of chemistry that goes beyond personal success. They headed into this season with winning games on their minds.

The 6-foot guard also believes that there isn’t much-added pressure to win now because of the success of the other basketball programs. Winning has become more of an expectation by everyone on the team.

“The less you think about the pressure the better,” McCabe said. “Just want to go out there and compete with the best you can and then allow the city to do what it does. It’s great for women’s basketball that they win and they’re in the city of Las Vegas and there are so many eyes on sports here. Same thing for us.”

Head coach Kevin Kruger agrees with McCabe that there isn’t any added pressure.

“I do think that UNLV basketball with its tradition and its history just has a level of expectation,” the second-year coach said. “I think it’s constant though. I don’t think there’s any difference. But at the same time, you know, we’re trying to get somewhere that as a school, we haven’t been in 10 seasons.” 

Kevin Kruger has seen winning at UNLV first-hand. He was the point guard on the 2007 team that went to the Sweet 16 with his father, Lon Kruger, coaching, the program’s deepest run in the tournament since 1991. Lon Kruger, a basketball Hall of Famer, took UNLV to the tournament four times and won a pair of Mountain West Conference Tournament championships.

“It’d be great to win the championships and do all that but we got to worry more about playing good basketball with each other,” Kevin Kruger said.

The Runnin’ Rebels aren’t panicking or scrambling to win now. They’ll let the wins come naturally. The team believes that through their preparation and hard work, they expect to prevail.

As of Sunday, the Runnin’ Rebels are 7-0. They beat No. 21 Dayton and won the SoCal Challenge where they took down Big Ten opponent Minnesota 71-62 in their best performance of the season.

McCabe said he believes 20 wins is the benchmark for this team. They’re a third of the way there with a lot of season left to play. 

Winning their Mountain West regular season and tournament championships as well as an NCAA tournament appearance, all have to be on their minds if they want to stay on the same level as the Lady Rebels.

One of the new transfers is sophomore guard Jackie Johnson III. He was electric during the team’s Canada trip in August, averaging 17 points in three exhibition games. Being one of the new guys here, Johnson III said everyone comes in expecting to win.

“I feel like we all put pressure on ourselves,” Johnson III said. “We know that we need to win. Everybody kind of knows that you need to win. Everybody’s talking about being all about winning.”

This article was submitted by a UNLV journalism student as part of an assignment for a journalism class to get work published in the student newspaper. The article was edited by The Scarlet & Gray staff.

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