TULSA, Okla. — A day before UNLV opened play in the NCAA Tournament, sophomore Anthony Marshall said he was excited by the "buzz" he was hearing from home about the team’s strong stretch run.
About 24 hours later, the buzz died, and the Rebels’ wildly inconsistent basketball season came to a weak end with a bad joke.
"About the only good thing that can come from this is to learn from it," coach Lon Kruger said after UNLV ran into a buzz saw in a 73-62 loss to Illinois on Friday night.
The Rebels headed home on a charter flight Saturday morning. But where do they really go from here? They move on without two seniors guards, leading scorer Tre’Von Willis and reserve Derrick Jasper, but return four starters.
"We’ve got the majority of the guys coming back," Marshall said. "I feel like it’s going to be a good year."
UNLV (24-9) finished third in the Mountain West Conference and made some positive memories. But of the 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament, only Tennessee — a 30-point loser to Michigan — definitely made a worse impression on a national audience.
The Fighting Illini led by 22 points at halftime and 20 with three minutes remaining, leading TV commentators (and countless others) to mock the Rebels’ performance.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber won the tactical matchup, rendering Kruger’s predictable, perimeter-oriented offense ineffective. The Illini barely broke a sweat while taking apart UNLV’s pressure defense.
"Coach Weber had them good and ready," Kruger said. "Illinois won all the battles."
Illinois was the bigger, stronger, tougher team. The Rebels played with little aggression and intensity during an embarrassing first half, and their lack of leadership on the floor was obvious.
Willis sat out the final 17½ minutes with what he said was a left knee injury. He finished his three-year career with 1,316 points, ranking 16th in UNLV history.
In his absence, Marshall appears set to become the leader, and the team might be better in his hands. Marshall, a Mojave High product, was on Twitter apologizing to fans after Friday’s game. He represents one of the major positives of the program.
As usual, expect Kruger’s name to be linked to various coaching openings in the offseason. Rumors have spread for weeks that Kruger might make a change on his staff, something he has denied.
Assuming no coaching changes, injuries or players transferring out, Kruger will welcome back four of his top five scorers and a veteran team that could be favored to win the Mountain West.
Every significant scorer except Willis returns. The senior class will be led by point guard Oscar Bellfield, forward Chace Stanback and 3-point shooting specialist Kendall Wallace, who missed this season with a knee injury.
"I feel like next year we have to set the standard high," Bellfield said.
Marshall and Justin Hawkins will be experienced junior guards. Karam Mashour played sparingly as a freshman, appearing in only 12 games, but showed promise.
Kruger has hinted at putting two big men on the floor together next season, but he always prefers to play four guards and wings with one big man. Quintrell Thomas, Carlos Lopez and Brice Massamba could be splitting 40 minutes at the five spot again.
"Everybody is excited for next year," said Thomas, who started 26 games as a sophomore after transferring from Kansas.
The most exciting addition for next season is 6-foot-8-inch sophomore Mike Moser. The transfer from UCLA was frequently the best player in practices.
Point guard Reggie Smith, a transfer from Marquette, becomes eligible to play at the semester break. Grandy Glaze, a 6-6 forward from Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass., is an incoming freshman.
"The group coming back, most of them have been to two (NCAA) tournaments. They have done a good job, and they want to go farther," said Kruger, finishing his seventh season and with no tournament wins since 2008.
"They have great attitudes about working hard, and they have great attitudes about wanting to get better. When you get whipped like this … I have no doubt it will motivate this group."
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907.