The Runnin' Rebels sometimes have two Coach Krugers -- Kevin (2) and Lon.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
CHICAGO -- Is it still possible, in an age when college basketball is on TV six days a week, and everyone is on a four-month hunt to identify giant-killers, that a team with Final Four potential can sneak up on the nation in March? Because that is exactly what UNLV seems to have done at the United Center.
Quick poll for readers outside of Mountain West country: How many times had you seen this Rebels team on the tube before it went and beat Georgia Tech -- and then upset No. 2-seeded Wisconsin, 74-68, on Sunday? Once? Twice? Not at all? That's what I figured. In its mid-major mania, the country was well-acquainted with Butler, which starred in the NIT Season Tip-Off and the BracketBusters weekend, and earned a No. 5 seed out of the Horizon League. Southern Illinois was no secret, either; the Mo' Valley had Cinderella cred after producing Bradley and Wichita State in '06, and its '07 powerhouse, the Salukis, were handed a No. 4 seed. Yet somehow, the scariest team out of a conference that isn't even considered a mid-major -- a school that won a national championship in 1990, no less -- was slapped with a No. 7 seed and therefore generated very little early buzz in Bracketland.
Mostly, I blame the Mountain West's TV contract; the Rebels played one game on ESPN (ESPN2, actually) all season -- and that was only because they were potentially the backdrop for Bob Knight's record-breaking victory in December (they postponed the General's party). The rest of their contests appeared on either CSTV, which isn't on standard cable in reasonably important media cities such as New York and Atlanta; The mtn., a regional subsidiary of CSTV, or Versus, which is more well-known for televising the Tour de France. UNLV was ranked No. 19 in the AP poll and was No. 10 in the RPI, but it had an exposure problem -- and it affected everything from the Rebels' national reputation to, quite possibly, their seed in the big dance. After winning the Mountain West tournament, the Rebels (30-6) deserved at least a No. 5 seed, and quite possibly a No. 4.
"People didn't watch us," said senior point guard Kevin Kruger. "It would be nice to be on ESPN every night, and have people talking about you on a little podium, but they're not, and there's nothing we can change about that. It's perfectly fine with us. We'll fly under the radar, and you can give me a ring at the end if you want."
That's the catch: The Rebels' underexposure meant much of the nation, up until this week, was unfamiliar with an astoundingly good basketball team. One that, even at this late juncture, is still in need of a proper introduction.
The first thing you must know is that this UNLV team has little in common with the final squads from Jerry Tarkanian Era, who were Vegas' last representatives in the Sweet 16 way back in 1991. The 2007 edition is loaded with veterans who are at best marginal NBA prospects, and squeaky-clean coach Lon Kruger -- who led Florida to the Final Four in '94 and was brought in in '04-05 to reshape the UNLV program -- has squeezed the renegade factor out of its rep.
"He's always been a straight-arrow guy," Kevin Kruger said of his father. "Our biggest problem as a team this year was someone sleeping through class; I don't think any other team in the country can say that. We have no selfishness issues, we don't have people getting in bar-fights, and with everything you can get into in Vegas, I think that speaks volumes."
What the Rebels have become is a crafty father-and-son operation, with Lon pacing the sidelines and Kevin, who had 16 points, seven assists and zero turnovers against the Badgers, running the show on the floor. Forward Wendell White (pronounced WHEN-dell), who led UNLV with 22 points on Sunday, said Kevin was "like another Lon Kruger on and off the court," and called him "the best point guard I've had in my life."
The NCAA's short-lived fifth-year transfer rule, which was repealed in January, allowed 23-year-old Kevin -- Arizona State's junior point guard in '05-06 -- to reunite with his father in Sin City after coach Rob Evans was fired from the Sun Devils. The Rebels would not be this deep in the NCAA tournament without Kevin's steadying presence in the backcourt, and he is well aware of the strange circumstances surrounding his family reunion. "How many times does a kid graduate in four years, happen to have redshirted his first year, have his coach get released, his dad coaching at another college -- and take that team to the tournament?" said Kevin. "The stars are aligned."
The Rebels' personnel also happened to be perfectly aligned around Kruger. In 6-foot-6 senior White, their second-leading scorer, they have a versatile wing player who calls himself a "power guard." He looked like an equal to UW's Big Ten Player of the Year, Alando Tucker, scoring in myriad ways around the basket to counter the Badgers' second-half runs. In sophomore Wink Adams (nine points) and senior Michael Umeh (seven points, seven rebounds), they have two ultra-athletic, albeit undersized, complements for Kruger on the perimeter. And in role players like Jason Terry's little brother, Curtis, a junior who drilled a dagger 3 with 0:33 left in the game to put the Rebels up 72-67, they have a formidable bench. "Different guys at different times have stepped in and contributed in more than just significant ways," said Lon. "They've done it almost weekly."
Kevin, who stepped in as a fifth-year gift to his father in the offseason, and stepped up to score 13 second-half points when they needed him most on Sunday, said there were three reasons that he decided to play his collegiate swan song in Las Vegas. The first was to rejoin Lon, whom he had once tagged along with as a 10-year-old at the Final Four. The second was to help bring the UNLV program back to glory. The third was to "make noise" in the NCAA tournament -- something he predicted would happen in November, after the Rebels were picked to finish sixth in the Mountain West and miss the dance altogether.
Kevin's words, which hardly raised any eyebrows back then, turned out to be prophetic. UNLV no longer has to worry about an underexposure problem. The revived Rebels' bracket racket has been heard nationwide, and won't easily be silenced in St. Louis.
Player Who Impressed Me: Other than Kruger? Other than White? How about Wisconsin's Kammron Taylor, who for the second straight game tried to put the Badgers on his back in the second half and keep them in the tournament. The Madison Magician was customarily cold in the first 20 minutes, shooting 1-for-5 from the field, he but turned it on down the stretch, scoring 19 in the second half and hitting all nine of his free throws. Wisconsin had been plagued by scoring troubles even since it lost Brian Butch to an elbow injury against Ohio State on Feb. 25, and Taylor was its only ballsy playmaker when it mattered.
Courtside Confidential: Last week, colleague Grant Wahl made mention of the Shelley Smith jinx, and it reared its ugly head on Sunday in Chicago. Smith is the ESPN all-access reporter who was embedded with the Badgers during the tourney; she followed Tennessee, another No. 2 seed, in 2006, and the Vols were upset in the second round by seventh-seeded Wichita State. ... UNLV, to the best of my knowledge, is the only college basketball team with glittery silver paint on its jerseys. The Rebels' numbers -- front and back -- are the sparkliest in the tournament. ... The red blazer Bo Ryan wore is much less famous than Sidney Lowe's coat, probably because Ryan's is a deeper color and doesn't make him look like a tomato. Ryan said he wore the blazer for the Badgers' alumni game, and then on Senior Night -- but caught flak from fans for keeping it in the closet during the Big Ten tourney, so he brought it back out during the NCAAs. ... UNLV's band played a song with Wisconsin ties in the second half, busting out the Violent Femmes' Blister in the Sun, and then segueing it into Viva Las Vegas, with its fans singing along.
The Big Picture: Oregon, the Rebels' opponent in the Sweet Sixteen, is far more skilled offensively than either Georgia Tech or Wisconsin, the latter of which probably peaked in mid-February. But can anyone definitively say that UNLV can't beat the Ducks? This is a team that starts four seniors, hasn't lost since Valentine's Day, and matches up well with Oregon. The fact that Kruger & Kruger & Co. managed to scored 74 points against UW, which hadn't yielded that many since an 89-75 win over Pitt on Dec. 16, bodes well for the Rebels hanging with the Ducks' high-efficiency attack. The only problem is, from here on out, UNLV won't be sneaking up on anyone.
Congrats to UNLV, but I don't think this is as much about them being potentially "Final Four caliber" as it is about Wisconsin clearly not being a premier team. I feel certain that Georgia Tech would have beaten them too.
Is Oregon always destined to be taken lightly? I'm not sure how many experts they have to prove wrong. I realize they are a #3 seed (for good reason) but so far I haven't seen an expert (SI, ESPN, Yahoo, etc) give them credit. Granted UNLV has played very well and are a good team but it seems like the suggestion is that they will make the final four by yet another expert. UNLV play a Wisconsin team that lacked one major piece. Is it possible to be ever the underdog and a #3 seed?
Well, I'm proud to say, I knew the Runnin' Rebels would be able to dispatch the Badgers. However, I would not label them Final Four material yet. Let's set how they hand a hot Oregon squad before we go anointing them as the South Bracket Champs.
Thank you for writing about UNLV. They are way better than their tourney seeding or their end of season ranking. I am a Utah Utes fan and thanks to our great conf leaders who created the MTN Conf TV station I didn’t get to see a single Utes game on TV. I know it was hard to be the midnight snack from the Wac on Monday nights. But our conference commission is in full spin mode saying our teams have never been viewed by as many people nationally. He said as much on a radio interview last week. I think the only person he is kidding is himself. The other issue MWC teams now face is recruiting kids whose parents now will never see them on TV. Thanks Commish!!!!!
Yeah, let me tell you something about MTN. Outside of Albuquerque, MTN is not even available. Even in Albuquerque, hardly anybody gets the MTN because you have to pay so much for the extra stations. And with MTN, the local stations do not have the rights to show any games. So, in NM, we all are back to just listening to UNM games on the radio. You would think in the 21st century this situation would be different.
Great article. As a MWC fan, we all saw that UNLV had a lot of potential this season and sure enough, they have played their way to the sweet sixteen.
The MWC is actually a very competitive conference. BYU, SDSU, UNLV, and AFA are all very competitive programs that can win on a national level. Not far behind these top 4 programs, UNM, Utah, and Wyoming are good enough to spoil teams' post season dreams. Just because the Big10, SEC, and Big East have the prime ESPN exposure, doesn't mean that they are the sole holders of talent on the college level.
As for exposure, yes, most of the nation has not watched UNLV games. But, the games are broadcasted nationally, it's just that you have to look for it on CSTV and Versus rather than have it readily available to viewers on ESPN.
Next year, the MWC will produce another couple of teams good enough to compete in the Big Dance and I encourage those that read this article to watch MWC games next season.
UNLV downs ACC, then downs Big Ten. (P.S. Wisconsin fans: we'll see you in Las Vegas in the fall when you open up your football season at UNLV's home opener. Maybe you can beat us then. Next up, PAC-10.
Before the tournament began, all the sports talk shows in Vegas were whining about how unfair it was that the Rebels were disrespected with their seeding. However, the best thing to happen to UNLV was getting the 7 seed rather than a 4 or 5. Better to sneak up on teams than go in as the favorite. Their two wins weren't flukes--they're that good. Time will tell if they're final four material.
I am a Georgia Tech fan, and was disappointed to see them draw UNLV, which I knew was underseeded. Despite my loyalties, I picked them to beat GT. I wouldn't be surprised to see them beat Oregon, who might have been a 7 seed themselves had they not got hot in the conference tournament.
Thanks for the pub on UNLV - they've been a solid team all year and are playing their best basketball now. They will give Oregon a very tough time and have a great chance to advance to the Regional Finals. The Rebels were underseeded, which reflects the lack of respect the MWC always seems to get.
No one in the league, especially coaches, is happy about the lack of market coverage for the new league TV package. Hopefully, coverage will get better soon. Commish Craig Thompson is right that the MWC is leading a trend (a new Big 10 channel is about to launch...). ESPN isn't without blame: the late (10 PM Mountain time) start times and lack of promotion for the MWC game of the Big Monday package wasn't doing the league, players or fans, any favors.
Hey defendthestreak - this is basketball season, right? Are you Mountain West-ers going to hang your hat on the Las Vegas Bowl (by the way, it has nothing to do with BASKETBALL) forever. Your conference champ beat a team that had lost 5 of their last 8 games. The reason your conference champ got set up with a mediocre Pac-10 team is because history tells us the Mountain West cannot hang with the big boys on a consistent basis. So you got one win...even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while. The reason the Mountain West does not, and will not get a big tv deal has nothing to do with the administration, rather, it has to do with nobody caring about the Mountain West. When your conference consistently produces more than one above pathetic team, then come talk to me about not getting the respect you deserve. One good team every few years that might make the Final Four or has a shot at a BCS game hardly qualifies the Mountain West as a conference that anybody outside of the mountain region should take seriously.
Great Blog! It touched on the fact that many teams in conferences w/ more exposure are more times than not overrated and teams in less exposed conferences are usually underrated. UNLV does match up well w/ Oregon and I see this game being within 5-points either way. It should be a great game on Friday night. I hope in the future all conferences can gain at least a piece of the TV spots.
In the Pac-10 championship Bryce Taylor of Oregon had a perfect game in a rout of USC (a team that killed Texas). He scored thirty points and made every shot he took. Who knew that? If Ty Lawson or Acie Law did that against a team of USCs caliber, it would be front page news.
The media under-reports the pac-10 , but the MWC has it much worse. UNLV is a good team, the sweet 16 game is a toss up.
UNLV is proving to be a fine team - but it's not just lack of TV exposure that makes them an unknown, low-seeded team. A stronger schedule would also help. And I would hardly call beating GT "downing the ACC." GT lost the first game of the ACC tournament to Wake Forest, who didn't go much further either.
Does anyone else have the same reaction to A. Tucker of Wisconsin? If he has a good game all is good. If he has a mediocre game his team loses and still all is good. It's nice to be level emotionally, but to the average fan it looks as though he doesn't care if the Badgers win or lose.
I'm not sure why UNLV needs to be hyped after beating Wisconsin. Wisconsin was without Butch Davis and a lot of people had them upset in round 2. I thought Georgia Tech would beat UNLV but I had Wisconsin correctly losing in round 2.
It's just like last year with Tennessee and Ohio State. There was a consensus that they were vulnerable 2 seeds and would likely be upset in round 2.
Hats off to Coach Kruger and the Rebels, but the arrogance of my beloved Badgers led to their downfall. All year long, I never thought this team was worthy of their praise as they were a terrible shooting team, but were able to take care of the basketball to overcome their shooting problems. From the ESPN series, it was obvious that the entire Badger program had punched their ticket to St. Louis and felt that they just needed to show up in Chicago. Hopefully, my Badgers will be free to play within the offense rather than rely on Tucker and his suspect shot selection. It was a joy to watch him over the years, but Taylor was clearly the more valuable player.
Fellow Westerners, We shouldn't be turning on each other here. The real enemy is the East coast / Mid west biased media. They will pump up any mediocre team from east of the Rockies (e.g. GT, Winthorp) when the are playing any team from the west that is not USC or UCLA. What a joke.
It is such a shame that UNLV and Oregon play each other. (not just because I was born in LV and went to UofO.) Would be great to see them knock out some other overated conference team like the big 10.
Wow! You Ducks need to chill. The article is hardly about you and yet you feel like you've been dissed. A bit sensitive over that football loss?
Point is, Mtn. West was overlooked at the tourney, just as in football. Yes, Oregon football was in a free fall, but without a tourney we'll never know if BYU could have beaten PAC-10 No. 4,3,2 or even 1 because of the BCS. Given the margin of victory, it's fair to say BYU would have been competitive in the PAC-10.
At least in basketball, UNLV gets the chance to play, which is the POINT of the tournament. You Ducks act like being mentioned in the same article as UNLV is some sort of insult, which is the problem
Will the Ducks get their due? They clearly get more of it than ANYONE in college sports, thanks to Nike $ and marketing. Looking at SI's print and website coverage of Ducks sports compared to their programs' status makes it clear. Not clear is how much Nike pays for it.
Let me see if I have this right...UNLV ended the season with an SOS of #37 and an RPI of #10. Oregon ended the season with an SOS of #64 and a an RPI of #21. It could be said that these teams are pretty evenly matched based on this. Or some may say that UNLV is a better team. Even fans of teams in the MWC wouldn't know for sure how good UNLV is. That's because...most don't have the Mountain channel. Unless you want to pay Comcast Cable...you have to go to a sports bar to watch your local MWC teams (in my case BYU and Utah). The Mountain channel is a joke.
look, i'm a duck fan, but i can even recognize that UNLV makes a better story than a number 3 seed ducks that are at the point of the tournament where people thought they should be.
and for the fans grousing about uo not gettng enough pub...read the paper. luke had oregon in his power rankings until they lost 6 of 8, and almost every national sports section carried bryce's perfect pac-10 final.
With Butch in the starting rotation, the Badgers would be in the Final Four. He's worth 8 to 10 rebounds and 10 or more points a game. His absence played a major role in Wisconsin's post season results. Wisconsin is definitely premier team....How many teams get 30 victories in a year?
When it was written near the end that the fans "were signing along" I assume that was just another typo that a proof-reader missed. If it wasn't I wish I had seen a basketball stadium full of people doing sign language in time with Viva Las Vegas.
Davidson. UNLV. It's like deja vu all over again. Doesn't anyone remember any of the Tark the Shark teams, where nobody wanted to inbounds the ball, because the shot would be already be taken before they could get down court? Not suprised to see them, just suprised it took so long. Teams with a past of exteme success must be insulted to be called 'mid-major', which implies a grammer school team that somehow found the golden ticket to the big dance.
Thanks as always for observations like the losing sax player in the VCU band, which brings the tourney to life for me, and once again proves the old adage that even sympathy sax is better than no sax at all.
I was eight when the Rebels won the national championship and I remember going to most of the games at the Thomas and Mack in Vegas that year. The whole town was going crazy and it was awesome to be there. I have followed UNLV ever since and it's good to be back in the Sweet 16. Oregon is awesome and no matter what happens UNLV has already exceeded all expectations.
Props to unlv....they've been playing great throughout the year and ive been watching them all year on dish network...games on versus and cstv. that east coast media say they 'can't be seen?' is crazy, look for it.
Ok, Mr. Smarty Pants. Next time you threaten to send some Russian boxer to kick my butt for not signing up for the bracket contest, just go ahead and send him. It cannot hurt any worse than how bad my bracket already looks, and we are just down to 16 teams.
Hey Luke...Hate your own cable package or your choice not to have Dish or Directv, or your own lack of TV knowledge outside of the ESPN world...not the MWC or the Runnin' Rebs. I'm a UNLV fan in Denver and I saw my Rebels more than a dozen times this season on TV. I have cable and saw several Reb games on Versus and CSTV. I also get the mtn station and saw at least another dozen games on that channel. It was AWESOME! I've never seen so many Rebel games on the tube since I lived in Vegas in the early 90's and actually attended the games (oh, the glory days). The Rebs got screwed in the seedings because of incompetent people in the NCAA board room and not because of TV exposure. Heck, if UNLV was on ESPN more than a couple of times in the last couple of years when they had a deal with them I would be shocked. RE'BELS.....
When will Bo Ryan wake up, Wisconsin always loses to the quicker and more athletic teams. He needs to get faster players and judging by this next years recruiting class its more of the same. But we'll have our revenge on UNLV in football when Wisconsin wipes them off the map!
There seems to be a sense that the Mountain West is a weak conference. In fact, the MWC went 18/12 this season against the 6 "Power conferences" led by UNLV's 5-1 record against the big boys. More revealing, most of these games were not played at MWC home courts since most of the name schools dare not play in Laramie, Provo, or Colorado Springs.
The resurgence of U.N.L.V should shed light on the quality of the Mountain West... In addition to the Rebels and B.Y.U making the tounament, Air Force and San Diego State were deserving as well. It's amazing to me how a team like Georgia Tech (albeit a good team) had one road victory the entire season and made the tournament. The NCAA needs to give quality teams...Not mediocre ACC teams its fair due during the selection process.
I think Oregon sports are the cockiest group of punks on the earth - go REBELS - ever since Bellotti (football coach of the ducks)stated that BYU couldn't match up to teams in the PAC-10 and then went on to get his a#$ kicked by the same team in the Vegas Bowl - get over yourself Ducks and realize that your an overated school with an overated athletic program. Get ready to be handed it to you by the REB's - And your humilation by MWC teams "will be complete" (that was a Darth Vadar quote).
Even though UNLV does not have a "star" player...yet...they very well could get another win in this tourney. If they meet Florida, well that doesn't look so good. BUT, the Reb's should FINALLY have a good recruiting year now that they are deep into the Madness, and pick up a transfer that can propel them into the spotlight. GO REBS!
Oh for the love of God, UNLV fans...a little bit hypersensitive are we? I don't know a Duck fan who has dissed the Rebs unless he was responding to a UNLV flame. It's not the Rebs getting some pub that's got us steamed. It's that none of the national pundits, not one, is giving the Ducks any love. USC is getting some love, beating Texas. This is the same USC team the Ducks beat by more than 20 in the PAC 10 tourney title game. Yet, there are pundits on this site claiming that Florida's got it easy all the way to the final four. Yet, another dis of the Ducks. Winthrop got a lot of love. In fact, I believe it was this very blogger who said, "Winthrop is for real," and, "they've wone one and they're gonna win more" (they're next opponant was a UO team that crushed them). Is UNLV the next overhyped, feel-good, cinderella team? I don't know. I do know this, the last team Winn picked to beat the Ducks is back home.
yea i agree why do other teams get the spotlight and other teams just get the cold shoulder and have to get wins in the NCAA tourny to get a little bit of attention? I think that all teams should get a chance because UNLV is my favorite team and i would really enjoy watching there games once in a while.