Darger back in familiar role after season inside

One of Joe Darger’s hobbies is playing the guitar. He likes country and hard rock and whatever falls in between.

"I play a little bit of everything," he said.

The same could be said for his talents as a basketball player, because the versatile 6-foot-7-inch senior did everything asked of him last season when he was the unsung hero of UNLV’s team.

Arguably the Rebels’ best pure shooter, Darger filled a hole in the middle and helped play the center position out of necessity.

It’s easy to get recognition for hitting 3-point shots, but defending 7-footers and trading elbows under the basket can be a thankless task.

"What Joe did last year hopefully is appreciated by everyone because it’s certainly appreciated by the coaching staff and his teammates," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "He went in there with a huge mismatch and never backed off, never said a word and won most of the battles.

"The guys know exactly what they’re going to get from Joe every day."

Darger’s role should be a little different this season, but it’s no less important and more in his comfort zone.

The Rebels are no longer thin in the paint. Darris Santee, a 6-8 junior, is running with the first team at the center position, and freshmen big men Beas Hamga and Brice Massamba will provide defense and depth as they continue to progress.

Darger can be a full-time forward again during his senior season, which begins Nov. 15 when UNLV hosts San Diego at the Thomas & Mack Center.

After a 27-8 season that included a Mountain West Conference Tournament title and a trip to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Rebels are surrounded by a higher level of hype.

"I’m getting anxious for the season," Darger said. "There’s no limit to what this team can do as long as we work together.

"We’ve got a lot of high expectations, and it kind of makes you a little anxious because you want to protect that and not let the community of Las Vegas and our team and everybody down."

UNLV returns three of its top four scorers — senior guard Wink Adams (16.9 points per game), Darger (11.3) and senior swingman Rene Rougeau (9.0).

Darger’s scoring average was a career high, but his 3-point shooting percentage dropped from 43.9 as a sophomore to 36.8 last season. The effort he put into defense and rebounding might have contributed to the decline.

"Joe got beat up pretty good and was sore. It had to affect him on the offensive end, late in the year especially," Kruger said. "He might not acknowledge that. I would be surprised if he said anything about it. If he gets little injuries, he’s still going to line up and play through them, and he’s done that throughout his career."

At 225 pounds, Darger was at a size disadvantage several times. His biggest struggles in the post were with Arizona’s 6-10 Jordan Hill and Utah’s 7-2, 265-pound Luke Nevill.

Hesitantly, Darger admitted to minor chest, elbow and shoulder injuries last season. But complaining is not part of his game.

"The only time I really felt like I was worn down was when I went up against a big guy who happened to hit me hard or things like that," he said. "But Coach Kruger does a good job of getting us ready for each game. If we had a rough game, the next couple days he’ll know that our bodies are worn down and we’ll kind of have light practices.

"I’ll still be banging with the big guys a little bit. You’ve got to do the little things that help you win the game, getting that extra offensive rebound or loose ball."

Because of the Rebels’ summer practices and tour of Australia in late June and early July, Darger said he went home to Riverton, Utah, for only about a week.

He spent most of the summer working out in preparation for his final season, one that should allow Darger to be more productive offensively.

His skills on the guitar are suffering, however.

"I haven’t played guitar for a little while. I’m not really that experienced," he said. "It’s something I definitely want to get better at as I get older. Right now, I’m just focusing on basketball."

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907.

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