Eye-opening loss underscores shortcomings

TULSA, Okla. — The easy thing would be to overreact because, well, that was one good ol’ fashioned butt whipping. UNLV’s basketball team got what it deserved in an NCAA Tournament game here Friday evening, thoroughly out-classed by Illinois at every spot and in every way.

The Illini prepared better, played better, coached better, probably left their locker room in better shape and maybe even ate a better pregame meal. It was that one-sided, not nearly as competitive as a final score of 73-62 suggests. The Rebels got boat-raced. They played the second half because rules demanded such.

What it means in the moment is simple: The Rebels were again gone from their sport’s biggest stage before the first week of games concluded, a No. 8 seed that deserved a better placement when the draw was announced and then played as if more suited for the NIT or CBI or take your pick of three-letter events.

What it means in the long run is more involved: The Rebels of today are good enough to annually compete for a Mountain West Conference title and NCAA berth and not much more. They are talented enough to win 20-plus games and not so much to make any noise in March.

They are your quintessential No. 8 seed most years, owning an apex of winning one NCAA game and for the past two seasons not even that.

Once in a lifetime, a coach’s son uses an obscure NCAA rule, transfers in and leads the Rebels to a Sweet 16.

More and more, with each passing NCAA loss, Kevin Kruger’s importance that one season grows to incomparable heights.

Think about it: What if he had never come to UNLV?

What has now become a roster stacked with transfers from high-major programs still lacks the size and strength and athleticism to compete with the nation’s elite.

The Rebels are good enough to beat a Wisconsin at home or a depleted Kansas State on the road but not good enough to do so consistently nor, obviously, when it matters most in March.

There’s nothing wrong with taking players who depart Memphis or UCLA or Kansas or other such places, but know that with each kid comes a story, usually beginning with a lack of playing time at his previous home. He’s usually not good enough to stick.

Players don’t leave such schools for UNLV if they’re averaging heavy minutes and are integral parts of the success. It doesn’t happen.

So the Rebels need better players. More physical players with skill and size. High school recruits. More transfers. Whatever. They need to get better.

If you thought the 2012 recruiting class was important for Lon Kruger and his staff, triple that view now. Kruger just finished his seventh season guiding the Rebels, and it’s not unfair to wonder if earning NCAA berths and not doing much with them is the annual level to expect under him.

"I think any time someone whips you as Illinois did us, it’s a combination of them (playing well) and us needing to improve," Kruger said. "They were really good, and we contributed to it. As a competitor, you always feel like you didn’t do what needed to be done to step up and fight.

"It’s disappointing for the guys because they played really well in the last month. They’ve done the things needed to be done to earn the opportunity to be here."

We are already hearing about the potential of UNLV’s team next season, when the Rebels should be picked no lower than second to New Mexico in what will be a noticeably weaker conference. More transfers become eligible. They are supposedly talented and quick and destined to make a difference for UNLV. Maybe. We’ve heard it before.

What the past two seasons have proved is that UNLV basketball is better judged at a season’s end and not before. It has become a believe-it-when-they-prove-it existence.

The Rebels won 24 games this season and made the NCAAs for a fourth time in five years. For most schools across the country that would be good enough every year, but Kruger didn’t take this job with his eyes closed. The expectations of UNLV basketball from fans and outsiders range from ludicrously unreasonable to fairly realistic, with the truth being it needs to be far better than what we saw Friday.

The easy thing would be to overreact today, but you also have to know that Illinois was terrific. The Illini were fortunate to receive a No. 9 seed given their erratic season but played far above one. They would have beaten a lot of good teams.

For the Rebels, though, it’s about finding a way to move beyond what has become their expected level, one that isn’t good enough for this program.

If anything, Friday’s butt whipping should have opened any eyes that remained closed on that fact.

If it didn’t, consider having a LASIK procedure.

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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