Consistency not one of Rebels’ attributes

Lon Kruger began coaching basketball the year Jimmy Carter was elected president, the year Patty Hearst was found guilty of armed robbery, the year IBM introduced the laser printer.

He has been a graduate college assistant, a college assistant, a college head coach, an NBA assistant, an NBA head coach. He led Florida to the Final Four and lost 122 games with the Atlanta Hawks in a little more than two seasons.

He has more Xs and Os built into 35 years of experience than a stack of dictionaries.

And yet, he might never have had a tougher time figuring out a team as the one at UNLV this season.

“Given all the unknowns — shooting with confidence, injuries, which big guy is going to play well on a certain night — it has been more the exception,” Kruger said. “When it comes to the range of confidence, from individuals to the entire group, I’ve never had it to this degree from a team in regards to shooting the ball.

“What you want to have is a team where you know what you’re going to get night after night after night and then complement that. When you don’t know, it makes it more interesting, for sure.”

Interesting.

Exasperating.

Maddening.

Take your pick.

The Rebels have been up and down this season like waves crashing along the California coast but won enough to make the NCAA Tournament for a fourth time in five years.

How far they advance as a No. 8 seed that opens against Illinois on Friday in Tulsa, Okla., will depend on which side shows up.

The good Rebels can beat the Illini and give No. 1 seed Kansas all it wants in the second round.

The bad Rebels could be back on their chartered jet headed home sooner than the engines have cooled from landing.

The good Rebels shot 51 percent through their first six games, all wins.

The bad Rebels shot 42 percent during a stretch of nine conference games, four of them losses.

The good Rebels had 11 games of shooting better than 45 percent on 3-pointers.

The bad Rebels had 15 games of shooting worse than 30 percent on 3s.

Confident shooters make or break games. For UNLV this season, they made, nearly broke and then made again the entire body of work. The Rebels shot the lights out and then shot as if trapped in the Adirondacks wearing sunglasses at midnight and then shot well enough to win six of their past seven.

UNLV has countless plays to change a game’s tempo, to get different players different shots from different spots on the floor. It’s the foundation of a four-out, one-in offense, creating shots off pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops and, in the case of UNLV most nights since January, someone-pick-for-anyone-who-can-make-a-midrange-jumper.

“We knew that if we wanted to make the NCAA Tournament, we had to be a team that was doing more than it was, that we had to invest more time,” sophomore guard Anthony Marshall said. “We put pressure on each other, one after the other, to put more hours into it, to stay in the gym longer each day.

“There was just a stretch where nobody was making shots. No excuses. The (season) has been a roller coaster, and we definitely had a down time. But we also know we can play good basketball. Early on, we played terrific basketball and have also played well near the end. We have to play well right from the beginning against Illinois. We have to play well for 40 minutes.”

UNLV shooters will get enough space Friday. Illinois rated second in the Big Ten Conference in overall and 3-point defense, but its players are more about length than pressure. They’re like San Diego State in that they are athletic enough to contest shots without having to climb inside one’s jersey to do so.

That they resemble the Aztecs in any regard might worry UNLV fans who watched the Rebels fail to match up against their conference foes in three losses this season but hopeful in how close they played.

The Rebels are quicker at more spots than Illinois. Shots will be there to make.

It’s a head-scratcher, this UNLV team. Capable of being really good. Capable of shooting enough bricks to build a retaining wall around the Thomas & Mack Center.

Thirty-five years later, Lon Kruger never has had one like it, a team that can be interesting and exasperating and maddening all at once.

How that translates in the Bible Belt land of tornadoes is anyone’s guess.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 3 to 5 p.m. Monday and Thursday on “Monsters of the Midday,” Fox Sports Radio 920 AM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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