It was a high-stakes game in Chicago, and when it was over, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan was busted and headed home for the offseason.
UNLV and Lon Kruger earned a ticket to St. Louis for the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. It was March 18, 2007, the date of Kruger’s most significant win in his seven years as Rebels coach.
“That would be as big as any,” Kruger said. “That’s the only time we’ve won a game to go to the Sweet 16.”
Kruger and Ryan finally cross paths again when UNLV (2-0) hosts Wisconsin (2-0) at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center. It’s far from March, but one team will add an impressive nonconference win to its resume.
The Rebels, after blowout victories over UC Riverside and Southeastern Louisiana, will get to test their strength against one of the Big Ten’s power teams.
The Badgers, ranked 25th in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll, boast one of the nation’s top players in 6-foot-10-inch senior forward Jon Leuer.
UNLV sophomore guard Anthony Marshall said he treats every game the same. But then he changed his tune, admitting this matchup means a little more.
“Of course, Wisconsin is a great ballclub and we’ve got to be ready to take on the challenge,” he said. “These are the types of games you play basketball for, and I’m looking forward to it.
“They are coming into our house and trying to take away something from us. We rarely lose here. We’ve got to defend our home court.”
UNLV will be at full strength, as senior guard Tre’Von Willis makes his season debut after serving a four-game suspension for offseason legal problems. Kruger said Willis, a preseason first-team All-Mountain West Conference selection, will come off the bench and play “shorter spurts” to stay fresher.
“I don’t think it will be a major adjustment for him. Fatigue may be a little bit of a factor early because he’s so emotionally charged to play,” Kruger said. “Playing games is different from anything else. There’s nothing like playing games to get in better game condition.”
The Badgers also coasted in their first two games, beating Prairie View A&M 99-55 on Sunday and North Dakota 85-53 on Tuesday.
Leuer totaled 22 points, seven assists and six rebounds against North Dakota. He made two 3-pointers and shot 8-for-8 on free throws.
“He’s very good because he can do so many things,” Kruger said. “He can drive it, he can shoot it, he can rebound it and he makes the players around him better. Leuer’s a tough matchup because he’s 6-10 and shoots it great.”
UNLV will defend Leuer mostly with 6-8 forwards Chace Stanback and Quintrell Thomas. Wisconsin also has another big threat in skilled 6-8, 240-pound forward Keaton Nankivil.
“When you play a team like Wisconsin, it’s great because it makes you prepare for all the things that good teams do,” Kruger said. “You don’t get anything easy on the offensive end and you’ve got to really work hard on the defensive end.
“We’re not as big and not as physical, but we’re maybe a little bit more athletic across the board.”
The Badgers were a No. 2 seed when they were upset by the Rebels in 2007. One of the stars of the game was the coach’s son, Kevin Kruger, who made three straight 3-pointers late in the second half in UNLV’s 74-68 victory.
Not as much is at stake in the rematch. But Lon Kruger said he knows his players won’t approach Wisconsin as just another nonconference opponent on the November schedule.
“It’s natural,” he said, “to get a little bit more jacked up.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907.