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Graney: UNLV-UNR rivalry carries real meaning in Mountain West

What some might forget: Kevin Kruger played for Arizona State before transferring to UNLV in 2006.

The Rebels coach knew then what a rivalry meant in college basketball.

He knew loathing Arizona was etched into his DNA.

“You had that dislike for them while hearing how good they were or what they did at a super high level,” Kruger said. “When I got (to UNLV), I knew the Reno game was a big deal. I knew it was a rivalry. As time went on, I started to feel it a little more.

“If you have to explain a rivalry, it’s really not a rivalry.”

This one definitely is. No explanation needed.

Here comes UNR

The Rebels on Saturday night host UNR at the Thomas & Mack Center, just another Mountain West game this season that will affect a standings logjam.

The top seven teams are separated by just 2½ games. It’s as close a league as there is nationally. UNLV (14-9, 7-4) is the hottest of the bunch right now, having won five straight in conference play for the first time in four years.

There is no Fremont Cannon to play for Saturday, but that shouldn’t diminish the intensity. UNR (19-6, 6-5) has enough motivation on its side, having dropped four straight in the series. Kruger has yet to lose to the Wolf Pack as the Rebels’ coach.

I’m also guessing UNR coach Steve Alford doesn’t have a fake rim painted blue like the Wolf Pack football team had an imposter of a cannon. Which was all sorts of funny.

It’s weird. When you have a team like UNLV with key transfers among its leading players, you wonder how much they will recognize the rivalry between scarlet and navy, between north and south. How much they will understand it.

Dedan Thomas Jr. is just a freshman, but the point guard grew up in Las Vegas and knows the matchup well. He remembers attending such games as a youngster.

“It’s a big thing for the city,” Thomas said. “I remember how loud those games were. Always a great game. Our (transfers) will realize it’s a rivalry game once they step on the court and see the crowd. They’ll feel the energy.”

The Rebels, for good reason, are feeling awfully positive about themselves.

This is the team Kruger envisioned to begin the season, the kind that has shown it can more than compete with the best sides in the Mountain West. Heck, the Rebels are among them right now.

They just sort of play and move on. Things could have gone bad following a 32-point home loss to Air Force on Jan. 23. It was the lowest of low moments. A forgettable evening in every manner.

UNLV hasn’t lost since.

“Just the resiliency of a veteran group,” Kruger said. “Never too high, never too low, just focuses on what’s ahead of them. We don’t have a lot of ‘Come to Jesus’ meetings. Really haven’t had any. If we don’t play well, we can’t let it bother us the next day. If we play great, we can’t let it affect what we do the next day.

“It’s a group that has banded together and bounced back from a number of things that have been audibles or speed bumps along the way. Just keep moving forward.”

The real cannon

They will do so Saturday in a rivalry game that is more important than just 40 (or more?) minutes. This is the time of year when scores become more significant, when teams begin jockeying for seeding for the conference tournament in March.

UNLV is pulling out all the stops to entice a large crowd. That includes having university president Keith Whitfield control a T-shirt cannon that will contain a scholarship worth up to $5,000 for one fortunate student.

Maybe they should also roll out the Fremont Cannon to midcourt at some point.

You know, the real one.

Ed Graney, a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing, can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on X.

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