Same as any basketball season, this one has brought UNLV coach Lon Kruger bouts with frustration and moments of satisfaction.
But never in the past three months has he been bored. The Rebels’ journey has been full of surprises, keeping Kruger on the edge of his seat more than usual.
“We’ve been up and down and all over the board in a lot of different areas,” Kruger said. “We haven’t been the most consistent group for sure. The effort and interest is always great, but the results haven’t been consistent.”
The roller-coaster ride went back up Wednesday night with UNLV’s 76-70 comeback victory over Brigham Young at Provo, Utah.
“After a good win, you have to come back and defend it, verify it and validate it,” Kruger said.
The message got through to senior Rene Rougeau after Thursday’s practice at the Thomas & Mack Center, where the Rebels (15-4, 3-2 Mountain West Conference) will host Utah (12-6, 3-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday.
“We can’t have any letdowns,” Rougeau said. “We can’t overlook anyone.”
The Utes, led by 7-foot-2-inch senior center Luke Nevill, already have the Rebels’ full attention.
“They’re probably the best team in the conference right now,” Rougeau said.
UNLV has hit high points in victories over Arizona, Louisville and BYU and dropped to lows after curious losses to Cincinnati and Colorado State.
The key to avoiding taking a step back is what fueled the Rebels’ turnaround against the Cougars, who ran out to a 43-30 halftime lead and made it look easy for 20 minutes.
“It’s just all defense,” said senior guard Wink Adams, who had 22 points and eight rebounds in the win at the Marriott Center, where BYU had won 55 of its previous 56 games.
In the first half, the Cougars put on an offensive highlight show, with Lee Cummard breaking loose for a fast-break dunk, Jimmer Fredette driving for layups and Jonathan Tavernari flying through the lane and flashing the ball high in the air as if imitating Dr. J.
Cummard, Fredette and Tavernari scored all of BYU’s first 27 points and combined for 36 at halftime. In the second half, those three players were held to a total of 14 points on 3-for-19 shooting.
UNLV freshman point guard Oscar Bellfield blanketed Fredette, Rougeau stuck to Cummard, and Tavernari was forced into an assortment of wild shots.
“We’re trying to get that image of being a hard-nosed defensive team,” said Rougeau, who helped hold Cummard scoreless after halftime.
“I was just trying to hound him. I tried to guard him as much as possible. I didn’t want to leave it to anyone else. We always knew where Cummard and Tavernari were, because those guys are such dangerous players. It was great all-around team defensive play.”
Kruger said his halftime defensive lessons focused on squaring up on the ball, containing penetration, blocking out and rebounding — all the basics that were absent to that point.
Of late, Kruger’s catch phrase is “competing to win individual battles,” and the Rebels won almost all of them in the second half at BYU.
Adams’ relentless drives to the basket sparked the offense. He shot 7-for-16 on layups and mid-range jumpers, opting to play to his strength instead of launching 3-pointers (0-for-2).
“I attacked the basket more,” said Adams, averaging 21.0 points in the past two games. “Early in the season, I was settling for the 3-ball too much.
“We just start games off a little slow, and then in the second half we kind of learn from the first half. We’ve got to get better at starting off the game.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907.