NORMAL, Ill. — As UNLV basketball coach, Lon Kruger is feeling good about where he has led his team. As travel guide, he’s feeling leery about a potential trap waiting on the road ahead.
The Rebels, 6-0 and ranked 24th, are hitting a classic letdown spot. Kruger sees it and is throwing up warning signs.
UNLV’s players are saying he has no need to worry.
“I don’t see a letdown coming at all,” senior guard Tre’Von Willis said. “This is a veteran team. Our focus is getting better every day.”
Forty-eight hours after the Rebels won the 76 Classic in Anaheim, Calif., they flew into Peoria, Ill., and took a bus through cornfield country to a remote destination for a nontelevised game in the low-profile Mountain West-Missouri Valley Conference Challenge.
UNLV plays its first game of the season as a ranked team against Illinois State (5-1) at 5 p.m. today.
“There’s always a concern,” Kruger said of an emotional letdown. “That’s the human nature side of it. That’s the challenge that you have to issue to the players is say, ‘Hey, you had a good win, you’ve got a lot of people patting you on the back and feeling good about what’s happening, and how do you handle that?’
“You handle that by playing with even greater focus and wanting to do even more. Or you handle it by taking things for granted and getting disappointed. That’s typically the way it works.”
The Redbirds are coming off a tournament title, too. They hosted the Global Sports Roundball Classic and closed it Sunday with a 60-47 victory over Jacksonville State.
Illinois State, which has faced a weak schedule, is anchored by 6-foot-9-inch forward Jackie Carmichael. The Redbirds surround Carmichael with talented guards Trey Blue, Justin Clark and Austin Hill.
Junior forward Chace Stanback, averaging a team-high 17.2 points, has been the driving force behind the Rebels’ offensive efficiency.
UNLV is shooting 55 percent from the field, including 39.3 percent from 3-point range. On the other end, the Rebels are limiting opponents to 35 percent shooting and 57.8 points per game.
Stanback responded with a serious stare and short answer when asked how the team would react after beating Virginia Tech in Anaheim: “Enjoy the win. But we’ve got to remain focused and move on to the next game.”
On paper, UNLV lines up as superior to Illinois State. But in a tough travel spot and in a hostile arena, the Rebels should get all they can handle if they lose focus.
“I don’t think we’re going to let that happen,” sophomore guard Anthony Marshall said. “Our coaching staff has been talking to us, and we have veteran leaders on the team, so we’re all pretty mature this year. We’re going to try to avoid the obstacles.”
Kruger is a former NBA coach, and he temporarily feels as if he’s back in that league with a hectic travel schedule.
UNLV is at the midpoint of seven straight games away from the Thomas & Mack Center. The Rebels will bus to Chicago after tonight’s game, fly to Las Vegas for a brief stop Thursday and head to Reno for Saturday’s game against UNR.
“That’s what contributes to making winning on the road more difficult,” Kruger said.
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907.UNLV VS. ILLINOIS STATE
WHEN: 5 p.m. today
WHERE: Redbird Arena, Normal, Ill.
RADIO: KWWN (1100 AM, 98.9 FM)
LINE: UNLV -7½