Kruger responds fittingly for tournaments or politics

OKLAHOMA CITY — Tweet of the day: "Jayhawks will be on the podium shortly. Lon Kruger, great coach with a two-decade track record of nothing to say, has exited."

Hand it to Pat Forde of ESPN.

Nail. Head.

You never really know where the strategy and reality parts meet with Kruger, especially this time of year, at this event, in this type of national setting.

He talks of a first-round NCAA Tournament opponent as he does all others, which is to say in glowing terms but with the excitement of an usher taking tickets.

Kruger is delighted to be here.

So is his team.

(Fill in the name of opposing coach here) does a terrific job.

Someone wake up the guy in the front row. (He doesn’t actually say that, but I have to wonder if he thinks it.)

But in his own repetitive manner, Kruger also has proven a master at readying his team for opening NCAA games. Getting to the second round has been an issue at times, but the Rebels can worry about that if they solve Northern Iowa in a Midwest Region game at the Ford Center.

Because, as we all know … "Coach (Ben) Jacobson’s group," Kruger said, "they do a great job."

For everything he doesn’t say, Kruger obviously has a successful method on how to take a team from Selection Sunday and prepare it for what it might face four or five days later. People always leave his NCAA news conferences shaking their heads at how little he truly offers of substance over 15 minutes. Never do you hear anyone question his ability to coach.

He is 8-3 in first-round NCAA games and has won five straight. It is a skill that will be more than tested today because if he wasn’t spending every waking moment devising a way to beat them, on how to score at least one more point so as to live for a gargantuan challenge Saturday, Kruger probably would take great pleasure in simply watching the Panthers compete.

UNLV has for some time needed to become more physical, to have more of an answer for bigger teams in the half court that beat you by beasting you. Northern Iowa can do that to others, has done it, does it well enough to be 28-4.

There is a reason the over-under for the game is 114. The Panthers have as much wow factor as a bowl of cauliflower. Most everyone wants to dictate a faster pace against them. Most everyone can’t.

"You appreciate the attention to detail they put forth," Kruger said. "I think our group is definitely tougher and more physical than we were back in October. We’re certainly not to be confused with a physical team. But we’ve made progress."

They get DirectTV in Cedar Falls, although I’m unsure how many Panther players chose to pony up the extra cash for a monthly sports package that would include The Mtn. and most UNLV games.

Those asked about the Rebels here Wednesday seemed to know a bit about the UNLV program’s history, but any specifics about this year’s team undoubtedly came from the film they had watched the past 48 hours.

(I am told, however, Northern Iowa players know a ton about the women’s teams of Texas Christian and Utah, which they learned earlier this season when turning in to watch UNLV-New Mexico men on CBS College Sports Network).

Preparation is vital in any tournament game, but even more so when one seed creeps closer to the next. This is especially true in an 8-9 game, where styles of play and individual matchups become even bigger roles in who wins.

Should the Rebels prevail today, a date against No. 1 Kansas likely awaits Saturday, one of those games where it becomes less about preparation and matchups and more about hoping and praying much better players forget how to pass and shoot and rebound for 40 minutes.

"Obviously, we’ve got some real challenges with UNLV, coached by one of the best guys in the business," Jacobson said. "Watched (him from afar) and talking with people who have a relationship with Coach Kruger, they all mentioned how he does things first class.

"You know, the wins in the NCAA Tournament stick out."

Kruger has eight of them in the first round. The formula is proven. UNLV today will be as prepared a team as this tournament owns, but whether or not it will be enough is unknown.

If it isn’t, you can expect UNLV’s coach to talk about what a terrific job Northern Iowa did.

If the Rebels win, ditto.

Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618.

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