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Gordon: Recruiting win puts Rebels back in MW title hunt

Updated May 15, 2023 - 6:28 pm

If third-year coach Kevin Kruger and UNLV’s men’s basketball team can beat Arizona, Florida, Gonzaga, Houston and UCLA on a Sunday morning in the middle of May, then surely they can contend with Boise State, San Diego State and Utah State next March in the Mountain West Tournament.

The commitment of Liberty four-star junior point guard Dedan Thomas Jr. and signings of fifth-year transfers Kalib (Oklahoma State) and Keylan Boone (Pacific) and Jalen Hill (Oklahoma) have solidified Kruger’s best offseason yet — and given the Rebels a real opportunity to play with the best in the Mountain West.

Thomas hasn’t yet reclassified, but sources with knowledge of his thinking expect him to leave Liberty this spring and play for the Rebels this fall. If and when he does, he’ll join a seasoned squad filled with wings and forwards who can complement his strengths and ease his transition from the Class 5A Southern League to the Mountain West.

“All they needed was a quarterback,” Thomas said Sunday after announcing his commitment. “They’ve got the pieces right now. They just need a point guard to run the show.”

Experience and versatility

With another scholarship still available, UNLV could use another center or more shot creation from the wing. But the roster as presently constructed resembles that of a conference contender that should claw its way into the Mountain West’s top four — and potentially the NCAA Tournament.

Last year’s team lacked the requisite scoring, shooting and ball handling to win when its defense struggled.

This year’s team bolsters the same defensive potential, plus the offensive upside to win when the Rebels don’t reach it.

Sixth-year senior wing Luis Rodriguez (10.5 points, 5.7 rebounds) and fifth-senior senior guard Justin Webster (8.2 points, 38.9 percent 3-point shooting) are reliable returners with differing sets of skills, offering two-way versatility and shooting, respectively.

Standing 6 feet, 9 inches and seasoned in the Big 12, Kalib Boone slashed, rolled and finished his way to 10.6 points per game while shooting 58.4 percent from the floor. His twin brother, Keylan, was also once a Cowboy. But he plays on the perimeter and averaged 13.9 points and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 47.7 percent from the field and 41 percent from 3-point range during his lone season with Pacific.

Hill at 6-6 averaged 9.7 points and 5.6 rebounds in his final year with the Sooners — bringing untapped offensive potential to UNLV, where he’ll operate as a secondary shot creator with more freedom than he had in Oklahoma.

Then there’s Thomas, the prototypical point guard tasked with bringing the best out of his soon-to-be teammates as the program’s most consequential commit in a decade or more.

Poise at the point

A natural facilitator, Thomas hunts great shots for his teammates by manipulating and exploiting favorable matchups. At 6-1, he mans the point with precocious poise in the most stressful of situations, beating defenses with his savvy as often as his skill.

His offensive arsenal is filled with floaters, fakes and unconventional finishes as his 3-point shooting continues to improve.

But Thomas shouldn’t need to shoot a lot for this team to succeed, considering the two-way versatility and experience with which he’ll be surrounded. Like some of the other players who left Power Five programs to play for Kruger, this latest round of newcomers should see an uptick in production.

An uptick in victories also should accompany the most talented team he’s yet assembled.

“I really like the group we’ve got coming in. I really like the group we’ve got returning,” said Kruger, who can’t comment publicly about Thomas until he signs a national letter of intent.

“We’ve got a group of guys that want to compete and want to win. I’m really excited about our starting point for the 2023-24 season.”

As he should be.

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

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