UNLV season preview
How good will the Rebels
Year one of the Kevin Kruger era begins!
The T.J. Otzelberger train never got rolling in Vegas, but it only lasted two seasons before leaving for Iowa State. Replacing the outgoing coach is Kevin Kruger — if that last name sounds familiar, it’s because Kevin is the son of former longtime UNLV coach Lon Kruger. Most of the roster from last year departed, namely David Jenkins Jr.(Utah), Caleb Grill (Iowa St.) , Cheikh Mbacke-Diong (UCF.) Luckily, Bryce Hamilton returned for his senior season despite receiving loads of interest when entering the transfer portal. It’s a totally new looking squad! In the first two games of the season, UNLV beat Gardner-Webb in a six-point victory. The second game came against California, a two-point victory in favor of UNLV.
Three important non-conference games:
Roman Main Event Multi-team event in Las Vegas:
The four teams taking part of the Main Event are UNLV vs top-five ranked Michigan, and Arizona plays Wichita State. If the Runnin’ Rebels stun the Wolverines that would quickly become a statement win for Coach Kruger. That Michigan team is crazy talented — 7-footer Hunter Dickinson, good guards with DeVante Jones and Eli Brooks, with two five-star recruits Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabite. On the surface, UNLV should lose that game. KenPom’s spread prediction supports that, giving the Wolverines a 78-63 edge.
If UNLV loses, they’ll face the loser of the Arizona/Wichita State matchup. Two potential NCAA Tournament caliber teams. The Wildcats are the better team with Bennedict Mathurin and Azuolas Tubelis, two NBA Draft Prospects. The Shockers are lead by preseason AAC Player of the year Tyson Etienne, a lights-out shooter from deep.
And oh by the way — UCLA comes to Vegas on November 27th. The Bruins look the part of National title contender. The Bruins made the final four last season after narrowly sneaking into the NCAA Tournament, returning Jaime Jaquez and preseason All-American Johnny Juzang make the Bruins a contender.
Key players for the season:
Bryce Hamilton: Of course, Hamilton is vital to any success the Rebels achieve — for two reasons: One, he’s the teams most talented player. Two, with the number of shots he takes, you need him connecting on those shots. In the tight opening victory, Hamilton scored 22 points on 8-25 shooting. If UNLV wins or competes in the big games mentioned above, having your best player perform matters.
Mike Nuga: Kent State transfer Mike Nuga dropped 17.8 points-per-game while shooting 50 percent from the field last year. I said Hamilton performing is important, but no single person can guide teams to wins consistently without help. The teams second best scorer is Nuga.
Royce Hamm: Wow! Is the word I’d define Hamm’s Rebels debut with – 18 points, 17 rebounds, and four blocks in the tight win over Gardner-Webb. I wouldn’t expect Hamm to drop prime Dwight Howard numbers nightly, but as the starting 5, producing close to double digits in the points and rebounds categories would help.
In the non-conference slate, I see the Rebels going 8-5 with losses coming from Michigan, Wichita/Arizona in the Roman Main Event, at home vs UCLA, along with road losses to SMU/San Francisco. The Rebels face a grueling non-conference schedule with potentially five quadrant one chances. The non-conference schedule isn’t super favorable to UNLV — I predict they’ll finish 9-9 during Mountain West play. That brings their season tally to 17-14.