Kevin Kruger has never been a head coach in college basketball. So how will UNLV play next season? Your guess is as good as mine.
When asked about how his team will play during the introductory press conference, Kruger gave a vague answer.
“We’re gonna want to dictate tempo, offensively and defensively. We’re gonna want to have a team that is aggressive and excited and determined. Offensively, we’re really going to rally and center around making plays for each other. We want guys out there that enjoy getting someone else an open shot, kicking the ball up ahead for a teammate to make a play, getting an offensive rebound that leads to a big basket in a critical moment. Those types of things will be the pillar of what we do offensively. In terms of philosophy or specific sets, I think those will just kind of be under the umbrella of that mentality and that mindset.”
Dictate tempo could mean playing fast or slow. Creating plays for teammates can be done in any offensive system.
So who knows how Kruger will play? But UNLV has landed two players in the transfer portal. And presumably Kruger has given them an indication of how the Rebels offense will look.
Transfer point guard Jordan McCabe talked to Sam Gordon of the Review Journal. And Gordon wrote:
“(McCabe) said he’s at his best playing uptempo and utilizing ball screens in a spread offense — thereby aligning philosophically with Kruger.”
First, every new coach likes to say they will play uptemo. Just take this cut of newly hired coaches in 2019 talking about playing fast. That is how you win a press conference.
Looking at Kruger’s past as an assistant coach, he has experienced various tempos. Jack Murphy was the head coach that hired him at Northern Arizona. But the Lumberjacks were never top 100 in offensive tempo (according to Ken Pom) under Murphy.
At UNLV, T.J. Otzelberger had UNLV’s offense ranked 259th and 290th in pace. At South Dakota State, Otzelberger had two teams in the top 100 of offensive tempo. But that didn’t happen in Vegas.
Lon Kruger might be the best example. In his 10 years at Oklahoma, Kruger had the Sooners in the top 100 of offensive tempo eight times. That includes a season finishing as the second fastest offense thanks to Trae Young’s quick trigger.
I wouldn’t put too much thought into UNLV’s tempo. All coaches (except maybe Tony Bennett) say they want to play fast. But not everyone has the players to do so.
The more interesting part is the spread offense with ball screens. That sounds a lot like T.J. Otzelberger.
UNLV’s primary motion offense in 2019-20 was continuity ball screen. Simply it is a motion offense that allows for continuous ball screens until someone gets an open shot or driving lane.
This past season UNLV ran that offense less often because they didn’t have many players that were good coming off ball screens.
Continuity ball screen is a college motion offense. You can also space the floor and utilize ball screens more like the NBA, where there is less movement off the ball.
That offense is less “fun” but can be extremely effective if you have great ballhandlers, roll men and shooters. You simply make the defense choose how they want to get beat.
Now matter how exactly Kruger wants to space the floor for ball screens, he needs shooters. You can survive with one (maybe two) non shooter on the floor. As of now UNLV has Mbacke Diong (if he elects to return) and transfer Royce Hamm as non-shooting threats in the front court.
Plus McCabe, despite shooting a lot of threes, has made just 28.3 percent of his triples. UNLV will need to add better shooters to make an offense based on spacing work.
But for McCabe, his offensive success will likely be determined on his ability to get to the rim off ball screens.
UNLV lacked players that could turn the corner on a ball screen and get to the rim. Even Bryce Hamilton created more of pull up jumpers than layups. If McCabe can get downhill, finish at the rim at an average rate and find open teammates, he’ll be one of the most important players on the team.