Had they not signed a single player, UNLV still would have had an outstanding recruiting year. The Rebels landed veteran coach Lon Kruger, then star forward Odartey Blankson withdrew from NBA Draft consideration. Just like that, UNLV was back in contention for a Mountain West Conference title.
The Rebels finished only 7-7 in the league last season and lost to Boise State in the NIT, but Kruger's arrival and Blankson's decision to stay have re-energized the team.
And this was already a program on the upswing, thanks to Charlie Spoonhour's work before health issues led him to leave the bench in the middle of last season.
Spoonhour's son, Jay, finished out the season, although Kruger was hired even before the Rebels played in the NIT. Having failed with the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, Kruger is eager to start again. And having coached at Pan American, Kansas State, Florida and Illinois, he likes the situation he's inheriting. "We're not taking over a program that's down by any means," he said, calling the UNLV position "a much more appealing job than maybe at any point in its history."
Blankson is a big part of the attraction. He posted 16 double-doubles last year and led the Rebels to an 18-13 record while averaging 17.6 points and 10.2 rebounds. Guard/forward Romel Beck is a nice complement to Blankson, having averaged 14.2 points. Point guard Jerel Blassingame needs to improve his 38 percent shooting, but he is a talented player. He will be pressed immediately by Ricky Morgan, a junior college transfer who started his career at Iowa State.
For inside help, Kruger will turn to a pair of 6-foot-9 junior college transfers -- Joel Anthony and Dustin Villepigue, who originally played at Gonzaga. Some combination of those newcomers and 6-9 returnee Louis Amundson will take the pressure off Blankson.
Ultimately, Kruger has the best chance of any newcomer to make an impact. The Rebels lost just one regular-season conference game by more than five points last season, except for a six-pointer in overtime. Three of their losses came by one, two and three points -- and a victory in any of those games would have given them a winning conference record.