Updated November 8, 2023 - 11:15 pm
An enthused announced crowd of 5,573 attended the first basketball game of UNLV’s season Wednesday at the Thomas & Mack Center, hoping to see the team that touted publicly in the preseason its aspirations to dance in March.
Too bad the Rebels forgot to show up.
As a 21-point favorite, starting the season seeking its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2013, UNLV was railroaded by Southern — falling 85-71 and resembling a pickup team in Scarlet and Gray uniforms instead of the veteran outfit is.
Absent of structure offensively and defensively, the Rebels were flummoxed over and over by Southern’s full-court zone defense and spread pick-and-roll offense.
A congregation eager to see for the first time standout freshman point guard Dedan Thomas Jr. — it roared when he was announced during a starting lineup chock full of upperclassmen — was tepid by halftime amid a 40-21 deficit and gradually diminished in the second half during UNLV’s failed comeback.
“That’s probably the worst we’ll ever play,” fifth-year senior guard Justin Webster said. “Obviously we’re hurt by the result, but we can’t let it get to us (because) it’s a long season.”
Third-year coach Kevin Kruger was stupefied by the outcome, acknowledging nary a forewarning during preseason practices that the Rebels (0-1) in their debut would lose their poise. Thomas, an elite recruit, was joined in the starting lineup by Justin Webster, Luis Rodriguez, Jalen Hill and Isaiah Cottrell, who collectively boast 16 years of collegiate experience.
But the group hadn’t yet played together or against Southern’s — or, seemingly on Wednesday, any other — zone press. The Rebels rushed their decisions after crossing halfcourt, triggering an 11-0 run for the Jaguars amid little defensive resistance. The Rebels couldn’t make a shot in the halfcourt either, missing 13 of their first 16 3-point attempts.
Pressured relentlessly by opposing guards, Thomas committed five first-half turnovers as he adjusted to the pace of the level he now plays.
“It’s just a big learning lesson. We all go through it,” said Cottrell, who paired a team-high 18 points with seven rebounds. “He’s going to learn from it. We all try to help him — every day — keep his confidence up.”
Thomas settled into a rhythm in the second half and finished with 14 points, four rebounds and five assists. But the Rebels never collectively found their rhythm, mangling pick-and-roll coverages to yield uncontested layups and 3-pointers.
Kruger repeatedly credited the Jaguars (1-1), who lost Monday to Texas Christian by 33 points.
“They put us on our heels, and we just couldn’t quite get over the top there,” he said.
Kruger also maintained confidence that the Rebels would regroup. They have 29 games to go in the regular season, the next of which is Saturday at home against Stetson, leaving little time to sulk about the most incomprehensible loss of his coaching tenure.
“This is a group that’s been through the ups and downs. Everybody in that locker room has a night they wish they could do differently or wish they could have back,” he said. “Unfortunately we learned our lesson really early here. Make no mistake that we’re going to work at it, we’re going to get better, and we’re going to have a better outcome on Saturday.”
Tai’Reon Joseph led Southern with 22 points.