Father-son combo leads UNLV to Sweet 16
On father-son day in Chicago, Lon and Kevin Kruger combined to put UNLV back on the national basketball map.
CHICAGO -- Here at Father-Son Day, otherwise known as "The Krugers Bring Bucky To Tears," the NCAA Tournament learned once and for all that blood is thicker than bracket seedings.
This time, it was UNLV coach Lon Kruger and son/starting point guard Kevin who delivered the first true major upset of this Madness. First, they stuck it to second-seeded Wisconsin, 74-68, on Sunday afternoon at the United Center. Then they stuck it to the selection committee, which decided the Rebels were no better than a No. 7 seed. And then they stuck it to every office-pooler who thought Vegas would crap out in the first or second round.
UNLV did everything but call Animal Control on the Badgers. It led by as many as 13 points, took Wisconsin's best body blows and trailed by as many as five, and then recovered to win by six. Anybody who watched the game knows this was no fluke. The Rebels were that good, that well-coached, and that underestimated.
A week ago, I was in Vegas doing a column on how the leading oddsmaker consulting firm sets the betting line for NCAA Tournament games. As CBS released the matchups for each region, the five oddsmakers nearly fell off their office chairs when they saw UNLV listed as a seventh seed. They figured the Rebels for a 5-seed, maybe a No. 6, at worst.
"I honestly was surprised," he said. And then he added a few moments later, "What can you do?"
You can beat favored Georgia Tech in the first round and then favored Wisconsin in the second. You can win 30 games and reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1991. You can savor the postgame compliment issued by Wisconsin sophomore Joe Krabbenhoft: "They made a lot of shots and they had a lot of heart."
UNLV has heart, plenty of it, but it also has a nice mixture of talent. Nobody on the roster is going to have his own NBA commercial, but the Rebels play as a team without agendas -- other than winning ballgames. They reflect the personality of their coach: understated, determined, the kind of team you don't want to see in your rearview mirror.
Of course, the Mountain West Conference's media thought so much of UNLV in the preseason poll that the Rebels were picked to finish sixth. Now they're two victories away from the Final Four.
Kevin Kruger predicted this in the fall.
"I honestly did," he said. "Nobody really believed it when ... I predicted [we'd] go to the tournament and make some noise."
The last time I saw Kevin Kruger in person was minutes after his old man's team, Florida, had lost to Duke in the semis of the 1994 Final Four in Charlotte, N.C. Kevin was 10.
"I cried," he said.
Not for long, he didn't. He was escorted into the Duke locker room (where I saw him) and spent quality time with his favorite player, Grant Hill. Then he made his way back to the Gators' locker room.
"There were a lot of tears in there, and then Kev walks in with this big smile on his face," Lon said. "He had his Grant Hill autograph."
According to Kevin's UNLV player bio, that 1994 Final Four appearance is the biggest thrill of his life. But Sunday's win against Wisconsin might work its way into the team picture.
"To be honest, it feels very similar to the feelings I had when [his dad was] winning games in the tournament back when I was not a player," Kevin said.
Kruger didn't start his career at UNLV. He redshirted and then played three years at Arizona State before transferring to Vegas in time for this season (thank you, since-repealed NCAA transfer rule). He came there for three reasons: to play for his dad, to help re-establish the UNLV program, and for days like Sunday.
"Just watching him be happy ... is one of the greatest feelings in the world," Kevin said.
"This is special," said Lon. "We'll definitely remember this."
Lon Kruger is only the fifth coach to take four different programs (Kansas State, Florida, Illinois and now UNLV) to the NCAA Tournament. He left Illinois for the NBA's Atlanta Hawks (and some very large paychecks) and crashed and burned after three seasons. Then he was an assistant with the New York Knicks for a year before UNLV offered him its vacant job.
This is where Kruger belongs. It's where he fits best. The NBA was nice, but it wasn't him. Now he's in the Sweet 16, with a team that has all sorts of moving parts.
The capsule description of the lowest-seeded team still playing: No starter is bigger than 6-8 forward Gaston Essengue from Cameroon ... They play four guards, though 6-6 bruiser Wendell "The Bull" White is what his teammates call "a power guard." White, by the way, played Sunday with sore ribs and still scored 22 points ... Reserve forward Joe Darger is the son of a polygamist and has two mothers and 18 siblings. He can also shoot the trey ... Guard Wink Adams went parallel during Sunday's game, landed flush against the court, returned for a minute or so, couldn't run, and was replaced by Curtis Terry. Terry played 13 minutes and hit two crucial shots ... Kruger was 2-for-11 in the MWC Championship and then 0-for-8 in the Georgia Tech win, but finished with 16 points, seven assists and six rebounds against Wisconsin.
"I'll go 0-for-100 if I win," he said.
These are the guys who beat a No. 2 Wisconsin team that only had to travel about 150 miles from its campus to Chicago. When it was over, the older Kruger clasped his son's head and gave him a quick hug near the 3-point line. Then CBS called them over for a quick postgame interview and that was that.
A trip to St. Louis is next, along with a game against No. 3 seed Oregon. But that's later in the week. For now, it's time for a cool, underrated team to celebrate a victory.
"Yeah, it's going to put us on the map," said White of Sunday's upset.
That's not exactly true. UNLV has always been on the basketball map. Now we once again have a reason to ask for directions.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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