Warning signs surrounded UNLV coach Lon Kruger in November. He sounded the alarm several times in the following months, receiving only sporadic responses from his players.
Kruger’s inability to reach his team — or to make the necessary adjustments — has left the Rebels miserable in March.
“Not a good feeling at all,” Kruger said of watching the Mountain West Conference Tournament continue without UNLV this weekend at the Thomas & Mack Center.
A team banquet at 1 p.m. today at Cox Pavilion will not be a celebration leading up to the unveiling of the NCAA Tournament pairings. The Rebels, barring a miracle, must wait for their National Invitation Tournament assignment tonight.
UNLV (21-10) was the preseason pick to win the Mountain West, but finished fifth and was bounced from the conference tournament Thursday with a 71-57 quarterfinal loss to San Diego State.
Kruger said the absence of a “blue-collar work ethic” was a major factor in the Rebels’ fall from grace.
“I’ve said all along, I didn’t feel like we were handling the expectations well,” Kruger said. “You want the expectations to be high. But I just didn’t think we approached it with the same mindset we had in the past two years.
“We didn’t approach it with the same level of enthusiasm and the same level of passion, and it’s my job to get that out of them.”
UNLV planned to reach its third consecutive NCAA Tournament by following the lead of seniors Wink Adams, Rene Rougeau and Joe Darger. Only Rougeau put up better numbers this season than last.
It’s easy to NIT-pick and point out some of the Rebels’ problems — no inside presence, no veteran leader at point guard, such as Curtis Terry and Kevin Kruger the previous two seasons — but Rougeau said Lon Kruger did his best to motivate.
“Coach has been harping on things all year, but it seems we could never clean it up,” Rougeau said. “Coach wants it the most. We’ve all got to have that feeling of wanting it just as bad as he does.
“He’s probably the toughest competitor I’ve ever met. The man doesn’t even play, but he’s always so competitive and challenging all of us.”
Kruger benched junior forward Darris Santee in early February and reverted to small ball by trying a four-guard lineup. It was hard to argue with the move, but the situation did not improve.
UNLV went 4-6 in its last 10 games, including three losses to San Diego State. In the past two games, both losses to the Aztecs, the offense was woefully ineffective and predictable as the Rebels averaged just 51.5 points and shot 7-for-34 from 3-point range.
Despite nonconference wins over Arizona and Louisville and a two-game sweep of MWC tri-champion Brigham Young, UNLV unraveled and probably played its way out of the NCAA’s 65-team field.
“We definitely had some quality wins. Without a doubt, we have had some tough losses. All we can do is pray that we get in,” Rougeau said. “With us being seniors, it’s definitely frustrating.”
Adams, who scored 26 points in Thursday’s loss, said the Rebels are not going to pack up and quit if their postseason destination is the NIT.
“We’ve just got to stay positive,” he said.
Kruger said he hopes next season’s team learns from the mistakes that created this season’s disappointments.
“It’s a tough lesson to be learned,” he said. “We don’t get to do this over again.”
• NOTES — UNLV was 22-1 in its opening game of a conference tournament before Thursday’s defeat. In the 10-year history of the MWC, the Rebels had never lost their first game. … If the Rebels draw a first-round home game in the NIT, it likely will be Tuesday. The Thomas & Mack is unavailable Wednesday.
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907.