OMAHA, Neb. — All season, UNLV coach Lon Kruger has been asked about the surprising success of his basketball team. He never gets tired of the questions.
And Kruger was hearing the same inquiries again Thursday after the Rebels’ surprisingly easy 71-58 victory over Kent State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
"Back in October and November, there were a ton of questions about this team, about who was going to step forward and who was going to play what role, especially given the loss of five seniors from last year," Kruger said.
"Yet, these guys just lined up, and they expected good things to happen."
If UNLV (27-7) still is playing next week, it won’t be a surprise: It would be a shock.
The Rebels, the No. 8 seed in the Midwest Region, advanced to play No. 1 seed Kansas (32-3) in Saturday’s second round. The Jayhawks are 121/2-point favorites, according to the opening betting line in Las Vegas.
"I’ve been watching Kansas play all season. Every time you turn on the TV, they’re playing. I enjoy watching them play," UNLV junior guard Wink Adams said. "We know we’ll be the underdog. We’ve been the underdog a lot this season."
Junior forward Joe Darger made four 3-pointers and scored a game-high 18 points to help the Rebels defeat Kent State, the champion from the Mid-American Conference.
Adams finished with 17 points.
But it was all about how the game got started. Adams had 11 points as UNLV raced to a 31-10 halftime lead and embarrassed the Golden Flashes (28-7).
Last March, when the Rebels made a memorable run to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 16 years, Adams was a key figure. But he was the only returning starter this season.
"Everyone knew Wink was going to be at the core of everything that was happening," Kruger said. "Different guys rallied around him and stepped up at different times, and the team’s confidence grew with each week of good play."
Junior guard Rene Rougeau totaled 12 points, 10 rebounds, four blocked shots and three steals in UNLV’s win.
Rougeau and Darger were backups last season, as were three other players — seniors Corey Bailey and Curtis Terry and sophomore Matt Shaw — filling prominent roles in Thursday’s game.
The names changed this season, but the Rebels’ results are similar.
Kruger walked off the court at the Qwest Center and waved to the estimated 800 UNLV fans showering him with applause. The crowd of 17,162 at Thursday’s games consisted mostly of Kansas supporters.
On Saturday, the Jayhawks will have the crowd on their side, and the Rebels will be backed into a corner — again.
"This is always what you dream about as a player," Shaw said, "coming in as an underdog against one of the top-ranked teams."
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or (702) 387-2907.ON THE WEB UNLV-Kent State slideshow