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Lon Kruger confident his son ready for the challenge at UNLV

UNLV basketball coach Kevin Kruger was the Rebels’ point guard the last time they made the Sweet Sixteen. His father, Lon, was their coach.

Meaning he knows a thing or two about building a successful program at UNLV — and just about everywhere else he’s coached.

The elder Kruger, 68 and fresh off yet another NCAA Tournament appearance with Oklahoma, spoke with the Review-Journal about his relationship with his son and the excitement surrounding his new job.

“Couldn’t be more proud,” said Kruger, who coached at UNLV from 2004 to 2011 and has reached Final Fours with Florida and the Sooners. “Basketball part of it aside, we’re proud of how he treats others. Proud of the integrity he does things with. He’s not going to be cutting any corners.”

Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

RJ: When Kevin was on your staff at Oklahoma, what did you try to impart to him?

LK: We went about business as we’ve always done. We deal with our program the same way we deal with our family. It’s not like we do something different at the office. It’s always been about other people. We’re always promoting confidence. We’re always promoting others. We’re always promoting energy.

RJ: How did you see him mature as a coach when he was on your staff?

LK: Just a natural progression. Confidence. Taking a bigger role. Having more voice around the discussion table related to style of play or personnel or recruiting. … He’s observant. He’s a listener. He’s always got his eyes open. He’s always got his mind open. He knows he doesn’t have all the answers, but he’s always interested in listening to others and picking up bits and pieces from here and there.

RJ: Kevin came back to UNLV in 2019 as an assistant. How did you know that was the right time for him to move on?

LK: I never thought about that happening. T.J. (Otzelberger) called and said “I haven’t talked to Kevin yet, but when I go through and check the boxes of what I’m looking for…Kevin checks all those boxes.” It kind of surprised me a little bit that he was going to try and recruit Kevin away from us. … The more T.J. talked and the more Kevin talked about it, I thought it was great timing. Great to get out under a different approach, a different philosophy. … We totally loved the time together every day. That time with your son is obviously very special. When he said he thought he really wanted to (go back to UNLV), he totally had our blessing.

RJ: You know what it takes to have success at UNLV. How do you know he’s ready for this opportunity?

LK: His passion for the city. It’ll be the city’s program. It’ll be the alumni’s program. It’ll be the former players’ program. Kevin’s got very little ego in that way. He understand he’s got to have a great staff, and he’s got to get good players. … His vision and expectation for himself and the program will be high and they’ll be healthy. He’ll spend the time. There’s no shortcut to spending time with the players… and people in the community. He understands that. He’s been around that all his life. … He’s humbled by the opportunity and knows he’s fortunate to have it.

RJ: How different is UNLV in 2021 than it was when you took over? What new challenges is he facing?

LK: Runnin’ Rebel basketball for decades has been the program in town. Now you’ve got hockey, which is great. You’ve got Raiders, which is great. People have got more choices about where to go, where to spend their time, where to spend their discretionary dollars. But that’s OK. It raises the bar. The Rebels have to do a better job competing with the other attractive opportunities in town. The competition for fan favor is not a bad thing. It’s motivating and it makes you do your job better.

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

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