In his short story Second Chances, Las Vegas novelist Douglas Unger says of the prevailing attitude in the city, "Nobody gives a damn where you come from. Where you're going is all that counts." ¬∂ That could well be the mantra for the UNLV basketball team, which—thanks largely to four transfers—improved to 7--0 after a 66--63 win at Santa Clara last Saturday. No team has done more to promote recycling than the No. 18 Runnin' Rebels, who upset Louisville on Nov. 28 and then won at Arizona four days later. They are one of several teams out West (along with Portland, St. Mary's, New Mexico and, as usual, Gonzaga) vying to be this year's mid-major powerhouse.
"The transfers came and found [in themselves] a renewed energy and enthusiasm for the game," says UNLV coach Lon Kruger. "Their excitement has promoted confidence in all of our players."
Kruger says he does not go hunting for transfers, but his program attracts them for several reasons. UNLV might be in the Mountain West Conference, but its name recognition is on par with that of most BCS schools'. The city itself is also a draw, but not just because of its glitz. Three of the newcomers are from California, so "our families can get cheap flights here," says guard Derrick Jasper, a transfer from Kentucky who grew up in Paso Robles, Calif.
Another draw is Kruger's wide open style of play. "His offense gives you a lot of freedom," Jasper says of Kruger, who spent three seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, "and it prepares you to play in the NBA."
December 14, 2009
Jasper, a junior, is the team's vocal leader. Junior guard Tre'Von Willis (formerly at Memphis) is UNLV's leading scorer, with 17.0 points a game, and sophomore swingman Chace Stanback (UCLA) is its top rebounder (5.7 per game). Senior guard Steve Jones (Arizona State) leads a second unit that ignited UNLV's win over Nevada on Nov. 18.
Jasper, Jones and Stanback bonded as they sat out together last season under NCAA rules. During their downtime, "they worked on their games, did some things in the weight room that maybe they didn't have time to do before, and all of them matured," Kruger says.
The surprisingly strong play of freshman guards Justin Hawkins and Anthony Marshall have helped give Kruger an 11-man rotation, with no player averaging fewer than 10 minutes a game. "That's made a difference in our intensity level," Kruger says. "There's no need for guys to pace themselves. We send them out and say, 'Go as hard as you can.'"
Not that the transfers—whose second chance is most likely their last—needed to hear that. "You realize that this is it," says Jasper, "and so you do whatever it takes to make it work.
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