UNLV men’s basketball finds itself in an unacceptable place
The once-proud program has now gone a decade without qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.
Updated March 10, 2023 - 4:11 pm
There is a bigger picture with UNLV basketball beyond the just concluded season. A more pressing theme that ranks much larger than another year without an NCAA Tournament appearance.
It’s that there has been a decade’s worth of them now.
And that’s totally unacceptable.
The Rebels haven’t been dancing in March since 2013.
Even more stunning: They haven’t reached the semifinals of the Mountain West Tournament — while playing in their own building at the Thomas & Mack Center — since 2014.
And that’s really unacceptable.
Used to be, some high-profile coaches in the conference would annually decry the tournament being contested at UNLV’s home, citing such as an unfair advantage. It was actually a compliment to UNLV.
You don’t hear such things any more. Like, never. For good reason. UNLV hasn’t been any sort of threat.
Another such thing: Since 2013, there have have been 17 NCAA berths handed out to Mountain West teams with the possibility of three more come Sunday. Of those that have earned at least one in an 11-team league, only Air Force, San Jose State and UNLV haven’t.
Think about that. More unacceptable.
How it got to this point is a tale of a revolving door of head coaches (UNLV has had 10 — be it full time or interim — in the last 24 years) and lack of overall talent, of a program with no continuity at the most critical of positions.
And of some really good coaches leaving for Power Five jobs.
The Rebels lost Chris Beard after 19 days with one call from Texas Tech and later T.J. Otzelberger after two seasons with one from Iowa State. They couldn’t make the jump any faster.
Expectations around these parts — despite all the empty red seats at home games — will always be somewhat out of whack in regard to the program and comparing it to its glory days of a national championship and Final Four runs, but never should they dip below the Rebels being relevant in their own conference.
That they haven’t been for all but a few seasons since 2013 is an earned stain on the program’s resume.
Kevin Kruger is the latest coach trying to alter such a course, having just finished his second season with an overtime loss to Boise State in a league tournament quarterfinal Thursday.
That the Rebels rallied from 22 down to take the lead was a showing of fight and fortitude, a solid example of effort and persistence from his players.
But that can’t be the bar from which we now define success for UNLV, right?
That certainly can’t be what others point to as a sign of definite progress.
There has to be much more. There should be much more. There is history here, tradition, facilities. There are enough tools to be, well, good enough.
“I know with the community and fan base, it’s a passionate one,” Kruger said. “If people didn’t care, they wouldn’t comment and voice their opinions. We love the Rebel fans who are happy and supportive and thank them and appreciate it. For those who are upset, we love and appreciate them too because it shows there is an interest, a want for us to be good.
“Everybody in this community wants UNLV to be good. So I still just think building and doing what we think is right and working our tails off is still setting us up for going in the right direction. … We wanted to get to the NCAA Tournament this year.”
They need to play and coach better, because a 7-11 league record and seventh-place finish demands both. They need more offensive skill and to keep capable bodies around so that each season doesn’t bring so many new faces.
Kruger lost his entire coaching staff after his first season, all to Power Five jobs. That never helps.
“It goes without saying that we all want to win and expect to win and compete for championships,” said athletics director Erick Harper. “But I think there’s a level of consistency you have to have to compete year-in-and-year out. I don’t care what sport it is, you need players in your program for two-three-four years to establish a foundation to be competitive on a consistent basis.
“I like how hard we play, how they respond to Kevin. I like the direction. We just want to win more and win more consistently.”
Haven’t done so to the point of a postseason berth in a decade now.
Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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