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UNLV proud after NIT run: ‘There’s a lot this group accomplished’

Updated March 29, 2024 - 9:15 am

Justin Webster was disappointed after UNLV’s exit from the National Invitation Tournament.

But he took a great deal of solace in the foundation he and his fellow seniors helped set for the program before Wednesday’s 91-68 quarterfinal loss to Seton Hall.

“Coach told us when we got here to leave this place better than you found it,” Webster said. “Now the young guys know what to expect. Seeing it progress each and every year, they’re only going to get better. I believe they’ll be in the NCAA Tournament next year and hopefully I can be there front and center watching them play.”

That goal seems plausible after the standard the Rebels set this year. They won 21 games, their most since the 2012-13 season. That was the last time UNLV participated in the NCAA Tournament or any kind of postseason event before this year.

The Rebels also won two postseason games for the first time since 2007.

“There’s so much this group has done that when the world stops spinning so fast right after a game and we’re sitting around reflecting, we’re going to have a big smile on our face thinking about,” coach Kevin Kruger said. “There’s a lot this group accomplished that will make UNLV basketball a much better place next year. This senior group should be proud and happy once this thing wears off that they put this program in a good place getting ready to go into the summer and into next season.”

The Rebels will lose a ton of leadership, experience and production when they do turn the page.

Twins Keylan and Kalib Boone transferred to UNLV to play one last collegiate season together and were two of the most important players on the team. Webster suffered through injuries but was a good shooter and leader.

Luis Rodriguez missed the NIT due to a family issue yet was perhaps the Rebels’ most important defensive player. Karl Jones and Nick Walters were important parts of the locker room.

All must be replaced. Kruger will have to hit the recruiting trail hard, but he said first he’ll meet with each graduating player to see how he can help with their transition into whatever’s next.

He’ll move on to constructing next season’s roster after that. It’s a task that will start by locking down UNLV’s returning players.

Junior forward Rob Whaley Jr. and star freshman point guard Dedan Thomas Jr. have said publicly they plan to return next season. Little can be taken for granted in the current era of college basketball, however. The transfer portal and name, image and likeness deals mean each team must recruit its players all over again each offseason.

Expectations should be high if Whaley and Thomas return. Whaley said playing in the NIT gave the Rebels a blueprint for what success can look like.

“For (Thomas) to get postseason experience and for us juniors, it’s great,” Whaley said. “Now when it comes down to situations like that next year, we’re ready for it. I feel like it’s really good to do it now.”

Whaley and Thomas wouldn’t be alone.

Sophomore forward Isaiah Cottrell, a Bishop Gorman alum, continues to improve. Junior guard Shane Nowell and junior guard Jackie Johnson III have given UNLV good minutes.

Freshman guard Brooklyn Hicks ended his season on a high note by scoring nine points in 14 minutes against Seton Hall.

One of the Rebels’ top priorities will be finding a secondary ball handler to take some pressure off Thomas. He played 35 minutes per game and was involved in almost every possession.

Kruger has talent coming in.

Promising center Pape N’Diaye will arrive as a freshman next season. The Rebels also landed 6-foot-11 junior college transfer Jeremiah Cherry and talented freshman wing James Evans.

Kruger will now look to add to that haul, which has already drawn strong reviews from recruiting analysts.

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on X.

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