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UNLV embraces rare postseason opportunity: ‘We earned this’

Updated March 20, 2024 - 11:00 am

It’s the chance to play more basketball. To be around each other longer. To send the seniors out on a positive note. To allow those returning next season more experience.

Those are the some of the reasons offered by UNLV’s men’s basketball team for wanting to compete in the National Invitation Tournament. For being excited about a first-round matchup at No. 2 seed Princeton at 5 p.m. Wednesday on ESPN+.

It’s not the NCAA Tournament, but it is an opportunity.

“We’re a team that since mid-December has played some really good basketball,” said UNLV coach Kevin Kruger, whose side has won 10 of its last 13 games. “The NIT has a lot of good teams and a great field. It’s a good feeling to be invited, a little bit of recognition of the job we did competing.

“It still carries weight that you could lose and be finished or win and advance. It puts us in position that you get that tournament experience and couple days of prep that are meaningful.”

It’s good for those playing their final college games.

Take Keylan Boone, for example.

The senior was ineligible for the season’s first eight games before debuting in a upset of then-No. 8 Creighton. He made 24 appearances and averaged 12.4 points and 6.6 rebounds.

Boone talked this week about how getting to the postseason — it’s UNLV’s first trip since 2013 — is a blessing. That while the ultimate goal was the NCAAs, having this extra time with teammates is invaluable.

“I still get to play with my guys,” Boone said. “Good vibes. We’re getting more work in. Just stay the course and stay humble. We just need to keep finding ways to stay useful and play basketball.”

Said fellow senior Justin Webster: “Like (Kruger) said, we earned this. We battled all year and fell short of the (NCAAs), but this is my first postseason in a five-year career. I’m excited. I’m ready to go out and play and compete for a championship.”

Take also freshman Dedan Thomas Jr.

Don’t be surprised if the Rebels (19-12) are among those predicted to compete for a Mountain West title next season. Their highly talented point guard will be a central reason why.

Thomas averaged a team-high 14.1 points and 5.2 assists this season.

It’s an important time, no matter how short it might prove. This is a chance for younger players to move forward with more practices and games. And to do so with a senior class soon to depart.

“The last time I’m going to play with these guys depending on (how far they advance),” Thomas said. “More basketball. Doing something I love. We get to go play a historic team in a historic place (in Princeton’s Jadwin Gymnasium).

“This is a step in the right direction, something that will benefit us. We need to take full advantage of it.”

So now UNLV gets Princeton (24-4), the Ivy League regular-season champions that were upset by Brown in the conference tournament. The Tigers have won nine of their past 10 games and are 12-0 at home this season. They also play well at each end of the floor. Princeton averages 77.1 points per game and allows just 66, the 27th-fewest in the nation.

It’s a new challenge for UNLV, which will be without guard Luis Rodriguez. The senior did not travel with the team to attend to a personal matter, a school spokesperson said.

It’s a chance for the Rebels to keep their season alive. Other programs like Oklahoma, Pittsburgh and St. John’s declined an NIT invitation. The Rebels welcomed theirs.

“You’ll see two teams that want to keep playing and are excited for the opportunity,” Kruger said. “The seniors are usually the most excited because they can see the finish line. Any time you have the chance to play for a championship, it’s a good feeling. As much as anything, we’ll have fun with it.”

Contact Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com. Follow @edgraney on X.

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