Kevin Kruger set out to overhaul UNLV’s defense. As a first time head coach, Kruger plucked long, athletic players out of the transfer portal. He even admitted his staff hadn’t spent enough time on offense in the weeks leading up to the season because they were so focused on the defensive end.
After knocking off Cal 55-52, the Rebels have two wins thanks to stellar defense.
“Our identity, regardless, is going to be defense,” Kruger said. “I know that might not be everybody’s dream come true. I just want them to know to just have a confidence and a swagger about them that when we need stops, we’ll get them.”
UNLV got a stop in the biggest moment of the game. With just over 30 seconds to play, Cal had the ball trialing 53-52. Jordan McCabe drew the assignment of Jordan Shepard, Cal’s best player. After chasing him over a screen, Royce Hamm cleaned up the possession with a block at the rim.
“(Bryce) stayed attached to Anticevich there. Jordan (McCabe) got over the screen of Jordan Shepard with the ball. And they did it perfectly.”
Cal used Grant Anticevich – who hit 37.5 percent of his threes last year – as a screener. If Bryce Hamilton would have overhelped, Cal would have gotten an open three.
McCabe went over the screen to chase Shepard off the three-point line. But that left the paint exposed, as McCabe had to trail the play.
Hamm was ready as the help-side defender and saved the game for the Rebels.
The Rebels have now held both Gardner Webb (.81) and Cal (.84) to under one point per possession. The defensive excellence has UNLV 2-0 for the first time since 2017.
Due to the depth of transfers Kruger brought in, UNLV has an old team. But the lone freshman has been trusted in key spots. Through the final two minutes, Keshon Gilbert was subbed in for big defensive moments.
“The kid’s a dog. He’s a dog,” Jordan McCabe said. “Once again, all that stuff, keep it in here. Don’t let him hear me say that because he’s my roommate and his head will get too big.”
In both games this season Gilbert has picked up the opposing point guard in the back court and forced a turnover.
“Keshon Gilbert, he goes in and he just changes the flow of the game,” Kruger said. “It’s just fun to watch. He plays hard. The city is going to love him.”
Offensively though, UNLV has struggled. The Rebels have yet to top one point per possession, something that normally spells doom for a team.
UNLV’s record when scoring less than one point per possession
But under Kevin Kruger, UNLV is 2-0 when not eclipsing the point per possession mark.
Zone defenses have given UNLV trouble. Cal was so unbothered by UNLV’s three-point shooting that they played zone and loaded all five defenders to the ball side.
It took away UNLV’s ability to attack the basket, but opened up three-point looks.
UNLV improved its shooting, hitting 10 of 29 from deep against Cal. But through two games, the Rebels are shooting 22.2 percent from beyond the arc.
“Well, I wish they wouldn’t have played so much zone,” Kruger said. “But we are going to see a lot of it until we prove we can shoot people out of it.”
The Rebels should start shooting better. Justin Webster is 0 of 5, but he hit over 40 percent of his threes last year at Hawaii. Josh Baker is 1 of 8, but hit 48.7 percent from three in junior college last season.
Assuming UNLV starts knocking down threes, the offense will start to pick up. If the shutdown defense is here to stay, UNLV could have a surprisingly good season.