What to watch for in UNLV’s season opener

UNLV opens the season with Gardner Webb tomorrow. It will be the head coaching debut for Kevin Kruger and the Rebel debut for as many as 10 new players (9 transfers, 1 freshman).

It is tough to gauge what this team should look like. But here are four questions that should determine how good UNLV is this season.

Who will be in UNLV’s starting lineup?

Kevin Kruger has downplayed the importance of which five players will start the game. UNLV may very well use a big rotation, at least early in the season. But the starting five (or whoever finishes close games) is still significant. 

My best guess is that UNLV has a core four: Bryce Hamilton, Michael Nuga, Donovan Williams and Royce Hamm. If those are the top four, there is only one spot open. 

That four does not include a true point guard, which opens the door for Marvin Coleman, Jordan McCabe or Keshon Gilbert. But it also only features one forward (Hamm), making Victor Iwuakor or David Muoka a sensible option to play in bigger lineups. 

Note: Iwuakor is likely going to miss the season opener due to an arm injury.

Who will lead UNLV in scoring?

This should be an easy answer, as Bryce Hamilton has led the Rebels in scoring the last two seasons. But I think Michael Nuga has a legitimate shot to be UNLV’s top scorer. 

Nuga averaged 17.8 points per game at Kent State last season; Hamilton put up 17.9 for the Rebels. But Nuga was significantly more efficient than Hamilton. 

Nuga hit 64.9 percent of his two-point shots and 38.5 percent of his threes. Hamilton only converted at 47.5 percent and 31.3 percent, respectively. 

Hamilton will likely lead the team in shot attempts, but if Nuga gets a decent amount of shots, he could outscore Hamilton. 

How good is Donovan Williams?

In two seasons at Texas, Williams averaged 10.7 minutes and 3.3 points per game. He was at the end of the Longhorns rotation. But he might be the most important player to UNLV’s success. 

If Hamilton and Nuga can be a high-end offensive duo, Williams will have the best shot to emerge as a third option.

He will lead the team in highlight dunks. But can he shoot and defend at a high level, especially if he is playing as a small ball power forward. He only hit 14 of his 64 (21.9%) threes at Texas. That percentage would be a big hindrance on UNLV’s spacing in the half court.

If Williams is great, UNLV could contend in the Mountain West.

How good will UNLV’s defense be?

UNLV has not had a top 100 Ken Pom defense since the 2015-16 season. But Kevin Kruger can be heard at practice talking up the potential of the Rebels defense. 

To be an NCAA Tournament team, UNLV might need to have a top 25 defense. That is a high bar for a program that has struggled to defend for half a decade. 

Kevin Kruger set out to bring in a more athletic team and with a bundle of transfers from power conferences, he looks to have succeeded. 

Defense should fuel UNLV all season.

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