Will Kevin Kruger have UNLV playing up tempo basketball?

Every year newly hired college basketball coaches say they want to run. It is an easy way to win the opening press conference. Promise a style of play that is fun to play and fun to watch. 

Jordan Sperber of Hoop Vision even compiled all the coaches hired in 2019 that referenced playing quickly in their opening press conference. It even included former UNLV head coach T.J. Otzelberger. 

But UNLV ranked 247th and 288th in Ken Pom’s adjusted tempo the last two seasons under Otzelberger. The Runnin’ Rebels were slow. And have been slow for a long time. 

Over the last eight seasons UNLV has ranked in the top 100 of adjusted tempo just twice. In 2015-16 when Dave Rice was fired mid season and Todd Simon took over. And again in 2017-18, Marvin Menzies second season. 

Otherwise UNLV has been stuck in neutral. 

It is no surprise that Kevin Kruger, a newly hired college basketball coach, would talk about his team running more. 

Kruger told the Las Vegas Sun that the coaching staff is considering asking his player to play more pressure defense and as a result sub more often to keep players fresh while playing a high tempo style. 

“We sat in staff meetings and actually started to bring up ideas we maybe wouldn’t have thought were possible at the beginning of the summer,” Kruger said. “Do we want to be more hectic? More disruptive? Do we want to sub quicker and stay fresher? After seeing these eight weeks, we have that ball of clay we can mold and hopefully do a lot of different things with.”

Plus, in a recent episode of UNLV’s Run It Back, a behind the scenes look at UNLV basketball, Kruger was preaching that defense was going to lead to easy offense baskets in transition.

(Watch the episode here.)

Kruger: “Why’d we score there?”

Unidentified player: “We ran.”

Kruger: “We ran. You guys are like a kid on Christmas when you get a stop and you have an advantage in transition. But you don’t get it just by asking them to miss shots. You get it by creating turnovers and forcing misses. You guys, that’s where we are going to be elite. I’ll put you guys up against anybody in the country in going out in transition and playing and having fun. Really, that’s what we want you guys to do. That’s why we are spending so much time down here.”

Again, it is common for a coach to talk about playing fast and then produce a slow team simply because that becomes the best way to win. But Kruger is giving us reason to believe this UNLV team will actually run. 

It will be interesting to see if the Rebels go to a quick substitution pattern to keep players fresh. If all of UNLV’s transfers work out, this team should be deep enough to play 10 guys in a game. But rarely do that many players hit their ceiling for one team. 

Realistically, UNLV will have moments in every game where the defensive pressure helps create transition offense, but it won’t be a sustainable style for all 40 minutes (barring games against significantly inferior opponents). 

And playing fast is not necessary to winning. Taking Kevin Kruger’s father as an example, UNLV ranked in the top 100 of tempo just one time under Lon Kruger. They made the NCAA Tournament in 2008 as the 223rd fastest team in college basketball.

At Oklahoma, Lon Kruger had a stretch of five straight seasons as a top 100 tempo team, including ranking fourth in 2017-18 with Trae Young. But Kruger also took Oklahoma to three NCAA Tournaments with a team outside the top 100 in tempo, including this past season where the Sooners were 228th

If UNLV ends up being more athletic than the rest of the Mountain West and their non-conference schedule, they absolutely should run a high-pressure defense to feed the transition offense.

But if this team has average athleticism or poor defensive skills, then a slower tempo will benefit the Rebels.

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