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Gordon: Embarrassing loss won’t define UNLV, but its response will

Updated November 9, 2023 - 7:16 pm

It’s one loss.

A really bad loss.

An egregious, reprehensible, deplorable, humiliating, inconceivable, embarrassing loss for UNLV’s once-proud men’s basketball program.

But it’s only one loss nonetheless, and it doesn’t have to define the Rebels — so long as they don’t play so pathetically again.

How UNLV responds against Stetson on Saturday from its 85-71 beatdown against Southern on Wednesday at Thomas &Mack Center should set the tone for the remainder of the season.

Either the Rebels regroup and resemble the mature, physical bunch coach Kevin Kruger assembled to compete in the Mountain West — or the disheveled gaggle that couldn’t dare to bother the Jaguars’ pick-and-roll.

Distraught as the Rebels were in the postgame aftermath, they maintained confidence that a loss of this ilk was an aberration.

“We’re not doing any hero speeches yet,” Kruger said. “This isn’t something where we need to talk about it: ‘Well guys, there’s a lot of games left, we can still do it.’

“We’ve got a big opportunity here on Saturday to play a game. … This is a team that’s been through ups and downs.”

Issues to fix

The Rebels are going to play better Saturday because they can’t play worse than they did against Southern.

Spirited senior big man Kalib Boone returns from a one-game suspension to join the lineup and deepen Kruger’s rotation. Open 3-pointers — the Rebels generated their fair share in the first half before the blowout began, missing 13 of 16 — are eventually going to fall.

Freshman point guard Dedan Thomas Jr. is no longer a debutante and will continue to adjust to the college level.

But UNLV’s performance Wednesday revealed some concerns that could further hamper the program’s NCAA Tournament aspirations.

Thomas was summoned already to play 38 minutes, carrying far too big of an offensive burden for a team filled with fourth- and fifth-year players. Depth behind him could be an issue: In 12 combined minutes, reserve Rebels guards didn’t score a single point.

Point-of-attack defense was also problematic against the Jaguars, whose guards punished the Rebels in pick-and-rolls and freely penetrated into the paint. Clunky, unpolished help-side rotations allowed for open shots.

Ranked 293rd nationally a year ago in opponent’s 3-point field-goal percentage (36.1), UNLV allowed Southern to convert 61.1 percent of its 3-pointers.

The Rebels’ offense doesn’t matter if they don’t defend at all.

Boone’s return should help solidify UNLV’s interior defense, but he shouldn’t have been necessary against a team of Southern’s caliber.

Kruger called UNLV timid in its opener.

“Hopefully we can take a deep, deep breath,” he said. “Watch the film. Figure out what we need to do and just be a lot more assertive and aggressive Saturday.”

A long season

A sturdier slate of nonconference matchups could allow UNLV to mitigate its loss to Southern. Among the opponents: No. 8 Creighton, Florida State, Dayton and Saint Mary’s.

Wins and competitive showings against those programs could earn UNLV the goodwill it lost Wednesday.

Speaking Tuesday morning about the NCAA Tournament, senior wing Luis Rodriguez said the Rebels can “for sure” qualify: “It’s on us for sure, but we’ve definitely got a chance to be one of the NCAA Tournament teams by the end of the year.”

The egregious, reprehensible, deplorable, humiliating, inconceivable, embarrassing loss to Southern is on the Rebels as well.

So too is how they choose to respond.

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on X.

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