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UNLV’s Kevin Kruger dives headfirst into transfer portal

UNLV basketball coach Kevin Kruger gets the alerts on his iPhone via Twitter. So do his assistant coaches. They know exactly who enters the NCAA’s transfer portal.

Exactly when and exactly where they’re coming from.

“It’s such a part of the game that things can be going well and a player just wants to change venues,” Kruger said. “As coaches, we’ve kind of gotten used to it, and it’s part of the fabric of the game.”

For now — and the foreseeable future.

Kruger and his staff have relied on the portal to retool UNLV’s roster. It’s a roster that has been ravaged by that same portal, leaving point guard Marvin Coleman, wing Nick Blake and forward Reece Brown as the only players set to return to the program in 2021-22.

Ten who played for UNLV last season are leaving Las Vegas and six who played elsewhere so far have opted to continue their careers with the Rebels. While Kruger didn’t necessarily expect this much turnover, he’s not exactly surprised by it, either.

“When there’s a head coaching change, you assume guys want to explore options. … There’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “But also at the same time when you look at it, when you step back, not expecting this number either. It’s kind of weird, I guess.”

Navigating the portal

Kruger met with Rebels players after the season and had an honest, candid dialogue about their future at UNLV and beyond. He said there was “honesty on both sides” during conversations with the players who opted to enter the portal about their prospective roles — or lack thereof — in the program.

Those conversations evolved as players from other programs began committing to UNLV as transfers.

“I think most of these guys want to play as long as they can, and they want to be in situations where they’re going to be able to play and kind of have enough of a role to do that and develop,” Kruger said.

“That’s kind of what those conversations are based around and how we’re going to see this going forward. What they need to work on, what we need to work on. At the end of that, there’s usually some thought that goes into whether or not they want to go in the portal and search for a spot elsewhere.”

That said, Kruger acknowledged he didn’t expect to lose as many players to the portal as he did. He didn’t delve into specifics, but he noted that he wasn’t shocked by anybody’s decision to transfer.

“There’s always going to be a guy or two that you would think would jump in with both feet with you and fight with you,” Kruger said. “But that may not necessarily be the case.”

Kruger also said he was “excited” that Coleman, Blake and Brown opted to remain amid the turnover taking place around them.

“It’s something we won’t forget,” the coach said.

Building a program

The sooner Kruger completes his roster, the sooner his 2021-22 team can began building chemistry. He said he’s not in a rush to finalize the 2021-22 squad, but his staff is recruiting with a sense of urgency.

“The portal is going to go all the way probably through the end of July,” Kruger said. “You’re going to see names where it’s like … ‘Wow, he’s in the portal. I didn’t see that coming.’ But at the same time, we’re more focused on building the roster in a way that we as a staff see that it can succeed.”

That starts with defense.

UNLV allowed 1.023 points per possession last season, a figure that ranked 249th nationally among 347 qualified teams. Only New Mexico, Wyoming, Air Force and San Jose State were worse in the Mountain West.

The roster, as previously constructed, lacked the requisite personnel to defend at a high level. With that in mind, Kruger and his staff have made a concerted effort to recruit players from the transfer portal who they think can excel on defense.

“That is by far the biggest area (we’re emphasizing),” Kruger said. “We really want guys that are going to get out there and just take a lot of pride in not getting beat. Hopefully the offense can just flow off of that. We do feel that the guys we’ve brought in so far are capable and willing and high motor guys.”

The Rebels have also secured commitments from multiple players with two or three years of eligibility, meaning they can play a part in shaping the future of the program.

“It’s not just something where we’re trying to throw a bunch of grad transfers together and cross the finish line,” Kruger said. “We’re actually trying to build something that can be here for a couple years.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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