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Deep and talented Rebels on the rise under Lon Kruger


LAS VEGAS -- Shade is a precious commodity here during the summer, where unyielding sunshine and triple-digit temperatures make the thinnest lamppost or narrowest awning a welcome reprieve. Any way to beat the heat is a success.

For UNLV, though, this season's mission is just the opposite. Expectations are ablaze for the deep and talented Rebels as they try to step out of the largest shadow in town: that of the school's landmark 1990 and '91 teams.

There may be no athletic program in the nation more defined by one 12-month period than UNLV hoops. The 30-point rout of Duke in the 1990 national title game and the shocking semifinal loss to the Blue Devils the following year provide the bookends to the modern era's most glamorous, controversial and successful short-term run, during which the Rebels won 45 straight games (and were cited for a comparable number of NCAA violations).

So, whatever Lon Kruger has accomplished in his six seasons in Vegas -- and he's done plenty, reaching the school's first Sweet 16 since '91 and notching 104 wins over the last four years -- in the eyes of many locals, it will never be as good as what once was.

Kruger knows it, and he smartly tries to welcome that comparison.

"The passion and the interest that the fans have as a result of the '80s and the 1990-91 seasons, that success directly correlates to giving us a chance to corner that enthusiasm level now because people here love their basketball," Kruger said. "Today, when we're doing well, they don't talk about it really without talking about that period, that time in UNLV history, and that's a good thing."

Kruger doesn't look like the prototypical Vegas ringleader. Perched on a leather ottoman in his office in the Thomas & Mack Center, he more or less looks like what he is -- a 60-ish Vegas transplant, skin a pleasant tan, face ever-so-creased by the years of work that also have seen him take Kansas State to an Elite Eight and Florida to a Final Four. He's ready to play the part this season, though.

UNLV is slated to return six of its top seven scorers and adds two sizable pieces inside in Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas and redshirt freshman Carlos Lopez to a team that won 25 games before losing to Northern Iowa by three in the first round of the NCAAs. After several seasons of building up the roster while playing a relatively deliberate style, this season's Rebels should be more suited to play like the Jerry Tarkanian teams that spawned the "Runnin' " part of the school's iconic nickname.

"We get after it defensively, but we didn't run as much as we'd like to [last season] because we didn't rebound very well," Kruger said. "This year, with the depth, we want to push it."

RELATED: Glockner: Tarkanian's '90-91 Rebels still carry an unparalleled mystique

Those plans could be altered, though, by the resolution of guard Tre'von Willis' pending legal case. The Rebels' leading scorer faces felony charges relating to an alleged domestic battery incident involving his girlfriend in late June. Willis' preliminary hearing, should the case move forward as scheduled, is not until Nov. 22, or after the Rebels' third game of the season. While neither Kruger nor anyone else in the UNLV athletics department could address the open case on the record, the school may very well face a touchy decision on Willis' status later this fall.

Losing Willis' 17.2 points per game would appear to be a sizable blow for a team where no one else averaged even 11 last season, but Kruger suggested that his team's improved depth would allow it to play the same way with or without Willis. Junior wing Chace Stanback concurred that Willis' possible absence shouldn't unduly lower expectations.

"Most of our players are scorers. We have a lot of people that can put the ball in the basket," Stanback said when asked whether the team would struggle to make up for Willis' offense. "We're not really looking at Tre's situation as a negative. We're really pulling for him and we're hoping that he's going to ... we know he's going to be able to play with us this year."

A teammate's vote of confidence aside, that type of certainty doesn't exist in the legal system. There's more security in assuming possible improvements from other Rebels' returnees. One prime candidate is sophomore Anthony Marshall, a highly touted local recruit who had a solid freshman season despite the complete disappearance of his jump shot. Considered a strong shooter at the prep level, Marshall made just 1-of-23 from three-point range last season, as the pressure to make shots started to weigh on his form.

UNLV was very young last season, so it's reasonable to believe there will be added consistency from the supporting cast (and better health for guys like Oscar Bellfield and Derrick Jasper -- though senior sharpshooter Kendall Wallace just recently tore his ACL) to go with the increased physical presence inside. As such, Kruger thinks believes it's the Rebels' mental approach that likely will determine their ultimate outlook.

"The key for us this year will be just to approach the whole season as if we really have no margin," Kruger said. "We've got to play better, be more physical, we have to rebound a lot better, put a lot of challenges to ourselves in those areas. If we can do that and not just assume it's going to happen, we can take a natural step forward."

Marshall wasn't alive when the Rebels hit their apex two decades ago, but he understands their legacy through word of mouth and the viewing of game tapes from those glory days. Despite the elevated expectations, no one is expecting this team to start 34-0, but its potential has Marshall dreaming of the Rebels once again being the hottest ticket around.

"It was probably the best college basketball team ever," Marshall said of the '91 Rebels. "To be here today, it means a lot. That's one of the reasons I came to UNLV because I wanted to try to reach that legacy again, get that fire around the town again, get all that energy back in Las Vegas."