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UNLV star freshman ready for next challenge in NIT quarterfinals

Updated March 27, 2024 - 1:30 pm

Dedan Thomas Jr. didn’t have the postseason debut he hoped for.

UNLV’s freshman point guard struggled against Princeton in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament on March 20, scoring five points and committing five turnovers. The budding star wasn’t about to waste his shot at redemption after his teammates picked him up in an 84-77 win.

Thomas looked more like himself in the Rebels’ 79-70 victory over Boston College in the second round Sunday. He scored 17 points without turning the ball over. He hopes to carry that performance over in the NIT quarterfinals against host Seton Hall at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

“I expect a lot out of myself,” said Thomas, a Liberty alum. “I hold myself to very high expectations and I want to meet them every game, so I just try to give it my all to do that.”

It would be stunning if Thomas’ next showing resembles anything like the one he had against Princeton.

He’s a five-star recruit who has somehow managed to exceed expectations.

Thomas, 18, leads UNLV in minutes, points and assists. Coach Kevin Kruger lauded the season his prize recruit put together despite reclassifying to enter college early and missing most of the team’s preseason camp with a hand injury.

“When you take guys that are a reclass, a lot of times there’s going to be a learning curve and a development process,” Kruger said. “While he has, of course, gotten a lot better throughout the year, he started at a great point as well. He’s been great. He loves to play. I think he’s having a ton of fun right now. These guys like each other, and without question he’s been our leader and will continue to be.”

Thomas’ command of the offense was huge in Sunday’s victory.

The Rebels committed one turnover as a team. Forward Rob Whaley Jr. gave Thomas credit for the feat, though Thomas downplayed his impact.

“We took care of the ball,” Thomas said. “I’m just glad I didn’t have any.”

That type of efficiency may be impossible to replicate against Seton Hall. The Rebels will still give it their best effort as they attempt to reach the NIT semifinals in Indianapolis.

The Pirates will provide a tough test. The game should be difficult because it will be played inside cozy Walsh Gymnasium, an on-campus venue that dates back to 1941 and seats less than 1,500 fans.

The venue has created a frenzied atmosphere the first two rounds because the crowd is right on top of the action. Seton Hall is also a challenging opponent regardless of the location. Point guard Kadary Richmond, a first-team All-Big East selection, is effective at getting into the lane and causing problems for the defense.

“This team does a lot of downhill driving, so it’s more of just realizing that and just sitting on their right hands and keeping it in mind at all times,” Whaley said. “Every team is different, but the basics are the same. It’s just about being prepared.”

UNLV knows it needs to get ready for a motivated opponent.

Seton Hall was one of the most glaring snubs from the NCAA Tournament field. The team appears to be taking out its frustration on its NIT opponents, defeating Saint Joseph’s and North Texas the first two rounds.

“When teams come out throwing punches, we throw them right back,” Whaley said. “I feel like that’s something we’ve had instilled in us because coach says that all the time. We have to come out and punch them in the mouth and then and if they punch us in the mouth, then hit them right back.”

It’s a challenge Thomas is ready to embrace. He knows it will be a great learning experience for what the Rebels hope will be an even better stage next postseason.

“(Seton Hall) is a very physical team,” Thomas said. “They crash the boards a lot. Just a very tough East Coast team. We’re just coming in there and knowing we have to be the tougher team and do our job to get the win.”

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

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