Updated November 4, 2019 - 10:50 am
Of those games Kevin Kruger remembers most, he had already moved on from UNLV basketball.
At least physically.
He never totally departed.
The upset of Louisville in 2009, when Oscar Bellfield scored eight straight during a three-minute span late in the game. The win against Arizona in 2014, when Christian Wood was this short of dominating.
Wink Adams against Texas Christian and Brigham Young in the Mountain West Tournament.
They are just a few that Kruger recalls.
“I would either be back for a game or get the film sent to me,” he said. “You know what this place can feel like. You know the experience your guys can have, where you can’t go anywhere in town without being recognized and fans rooting and supporting the Rebels.
“As cliche as it sounds, you want it to mean the same to them as it did to you — running out of that tunnel, the fireworks going off, the arena packed. You want them to be proud when they’re here and proud when they leave telling others, ‘I went to UNLV.’”
His role in imparting such history is now that of an assistant on the staff of first-year coach T. J. Otzelberger, whose UNLV era officially commences Tuesday night against Purdue Fort Wayne at a Thomas & Mack Center that has resembled more morgue than any form of madness in recent times.
Memories are fresh
Kruger knows only of raucous and impassioned home crowds, having spent his one season as a UNLV player (2006-07) helping lead his father’s team to the school’s first Sweet 16 appearance since 1991.
Back when graduate transfers weren’t as common as the sun rising, Kruger arrived from Arizona State as one of the earliest to test the rule. He would direct Lon Kruger’s side to a 30-7 record and do so in front of average announced home gatherings of 11,354.
The difference: You could actually believe crowd counts back then.
Otzelberger’s challenge is twofold and yet you would assume solving one part would resolve the other, which is to say if the Rebels can build a winning program that annually contends for NCAA Tournament berths, thousands of red seats will again be occupied.
UNLV follows the pattern of most schools and announces tickets out, which explains why an average of 8,722 for 16 home games last season was met with more laughs than a Saturday night at the comedy club.
The same can be said for averages of 10,621 in 2017-18 and 10,406 in 2016-17.
They were numbers of fantasy, not close to how many bodies actually attended games.
So how to get them back before we know if Otzelberger is the answer?
Perhaps in style.
Playing (really) fast
For a program that has ranked 169th or worse in tempo two of the past three seasons, that means a fresh mindset of playing fast and taking countless 3-pointers and embracing modern-day analytics when it comes to pace and transition and quick offense, either with an advantage or off a secondary break.
It means long jumpers or dunks and almost nothing in between.
Wondering: Is any or all of this enough to improve attendance while winning possibly develops?
“I don’t know,” Otzelberger said. “We’re going to play a style that we feel gives us the best chance to win night in and night out. The teams we had the last few years (at South Dakota State), we’ve been among the tops in the country in a lot of offensive categories.
“Hopefully, the community and all our fans can come to appreciate and enjoy how hard our guys are working and how hard they compete out there.”
It should. This remains an interested and knowledgeable basketball market, regardless of those major league teams that have arrived or are on their way. Winning big will bring folks back the Thomas & Mack in droves, but how Otzelberger’s team plans to compete isn’t a bad appetizer until if or when such a main course is served.
I’m not yet sure if UNLV can defend air, but there’s a lot to be said about a flashy approach in a glitzy town.
“It’s Vegas, where there seems to be a new show on the Strip every week because the other one didn’t work,” Kruger said. “We’re the new show. And if it doesn’t work, then people won’t come. You have to win. We have to get back to winning.”
Until then, think about giving style a chance.
Contact columnist Ed Graney at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.