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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
In Lon Kruger's first year as UNLV coach, mediocrity reigned supreme. That is, until late in the season when the Runnin' Rebels finally started showing their potential by winning eight-of-11 games and reaching the NIT for the fourth consecutive year.
"We obviously got a little better at the end of the year," said Kruger, the former Kansas State, Florida, Illinois and Atlanta Hawks coach. "We kind of got what we deserved a bit. There was progress towards the end."
After defeating Arizona State, 89-78, at the Thomas & Mack Center, UNLV lost by 77-66 to the eventual champion South Carolina in Columbia, S.C.
During a rocky non-conference season, UNLV actually played some of its best basketball in losses to Big 12 powers Oklahoma State in the Las Vegas Showdown and Texas in Austin. Any momentum gained in those games didn't appear as the Mountain West Conference season began. The Runnin' Rebels started 2-6.
A 93-91 overtime win Feb. 12 at San Diego State changed all that. With less than 30 seconds remaining and down 10 points, UNLV was on life support. But the Runnin' Rebels made a run, Curtis Terry hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to send the game into overtime, and momentum carried them to the win. The comeback win was their first on the road in conference play.
UNLV went on to win three more games (including another one involving a last-second shot, this time by Odartey Blankson at Wyoming) and five-of-six before falling to No. 15 Utah in the MWC Tournament semifinals.
COACH AND PROGRAM
Those heroics weren't rare for Blankson (17.5 ppg, 8.1 rpg).
"Odartey was able to score and get tough buckets late in games," Kruger said.
Blankson, who started every game in his final campaign, was a first-team All-MWC selection for the second straight year.
Romel Beck (13.6 ppg, 2.4 rpg) and Jerel Blassingame (8.9 ppg, 5.5 apg) -- both of whom started 18 games -- also are gone. Like Blankson, Beck (an honorable-mention selection) was clutch as well. Andy Hannan (3.9 ppg, 2.0 rpg) was a solid reserve who will also be missed.
Broken down, it's quite a hit to take in the way of leadership.
"That's four seniors we have to replace. That's a lot," Kruger said.
In addition, sophomore John Winston (2.2 ppg, 2.4 apg, 1.4 rpg) left the program in late December.
Louis Amundson (7.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.4 bpg), a 6-9 senior who didn't miss a start last year, was a bright spot in 2004-05.
"Louis just made progress and continued to improve," Kruger said.
Amundson came out of nowhere Dec. 12 at Auburn by corralling a conference-record 22 rebounds to go along with 22 points.
"He is a very aggressive rebounder and he improved a lot defensively," Kruger said. He also became much more aggressive offensively when he received the ball in the paint."
Junior guard Michael Umeh (9.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.4 apg), a 6-2, 205-pounder, made 17 starts (including the final 14) and showed great strides late in the season. He scored UNLV's first 14 points (including four threes) against Wyoming in the MWC Tournament.
"Michael really played with confidence down the stretch," Kruger said. "He got to the point where he was very aggressive offensively, attacking the rim and shooting the three pointer well."
Senior guard Ricky Morgan (4.1 ppg, 2.3 apg) was a junior transfer who started the final 12 games of the season in favor of Blassingame. "Ricky came on late and provided good direction," Kruger said.
The 6-foot, 200-pound Morgan buried a conference-record 18 (of 19) free throws in the Wyoming game. He's also a proven defender.
Seniors Dustin Villepigue (3.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg) and Joel Anthony (1.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 1.6 bpg) will vie for time in the frontcourt.
"Joel and Dustin are not afraid of contact," Kruger said. "And they can rebound."
Villepigue, a 6-9, 230-pound forward, plays tough defense on the interior and is a 54 percent shooter.
"He is an effective low-post scorer with his back to the bucket and can knock down the mid-range jumper," Kruger said.
Anthony, a 6-9, 250-pound center, is a terrific athlete who gives great effort on the defensive end. A slow starter, Anthony came on late and finished as UNLV's top shot-blocker while averaging only 14 minutes.
"He will become more and more comfortable offensively as he gets more repetitions," Kruger said.
Curtis Terry (3.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg), a 6-5, 205-pound sophomore guard/forward who received a scholarship after being a walk-on to start the season, will be in the mix.
"Curtis had big games, big moments," Kruger said. "And he was playing consistently better towards the end."
This year's recruiting class would have been downright scary had star forward Davon Jefferson qualified academically. Instead, the 6-7, 190-pounder from Lynwood (Calif.) High School will attend a prep school this season.
Rivals.com rated him sixth among its 2006 prospects.
Even without Jefferson, Kruger has a nice headliner in freshman point guard Jo'Van Adams (28.0 ppg, 12.0 apg, 8.0 spg) from Gulf Shores Academy in Houston. His team won three straight state titles and was ranked as high as sixth in the nation last year.
The 6-foot, 190-pounder is recovering from a broken leg suffered in February.
"He's going to be a key guy. He can push the ball and score," Kruger said.
Adams, the country's second best point guard and 19th best prospect overall according to Rivals.com, is expected to gain the starting nod over Morgan. He can play either guard position, however, and gets after it on the defensive end as well.
Kruger thinks Joe Darger (15.0 ppg, 13.0 rpg), a 6-7, 210-pound forward from Riverton (Utah) High School, and Jerome Johnson (15.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 3.0 bpg), a 6-8, 230-pound forward/center from Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., will make big impacts as freshmen.
Darger was one of the top-ranked small forwards on the West Coast last year.
"He is a very good shooter and good in the post against mismatches," Kruger said.
Johnson, originally from Baltimore, helped lead Hargrave to a 26-1 record.
"He is good in the low post with his back to the bucket and can face up and knock down the 17-footer," Kruger said.
Junior guards Wendell White (21.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and Jason Petrimouix (15.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg), along with junior forward Gaston Essengue (14.1 ppg, 9.1 rpg) round out the class.
White, a 6-6, 215-pounder, played at Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, Calif., where he was the school's only first-team all-state selection.
"He can post up smaller guards and take bigger players to the perimeter and beat them off the dribble," Kruger said. "He is very versatile both offensively and defensively."
Petrimouix, a Las Vegas native, comes from Dixie State College in Utah and can play both guard spots at 6-4 and 195 pounds.
"He is quick, can score driving to the bucket and can shoot the ball from range," Kruger said. "He is very active defensively."
The 6-8, 225-pound Essengue, originally from Cameroon, was one of the top junior college players in the west out of Weatherford (Texas) College.
"Gaston is a very strong power forward who can score both on the inside and with a mid-range jumper," Kruger said. "He runs the floor well, is a good rebounder and is very active in the paint.
As a whole, Kruger will be asking a lot out of these newcomers.
"This class has great work habits, chemistry, athleticism," he said. "We'll need this group to step up and give us production."
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Last season an experienced UNLV team finished strong to secure a postseason tournament bid. Now, with the bulk of the scoring gone, Kruger turns to another quartet of seniors. That foursome, along with the other returnees, isn't the issue. Recruits are going to have to play, and they're something of an unknown commodity.
"Our concern is that a lot of our team is unproven," said Kruger, entering his 20th season in college coaching.
On the docket this year is a trip to Stillwater for another game against Oklahoma State. Fellow Big 12 team Texas Tech comes in for the Las Vegas Showdown, which also features Stanford and Virginia Tech. Plus, the in-state rivalry with the state's best team the last two years, Nevada, continues.
"Our schedule is very challenging. But it's going to prepare us for league play," Kruger said.
In order to make a return trip to the postseason, the Runnin' Rebels need to shore up their defense, which at times last season was suspect. Kruger realizes this and yet is hopeful for improvement.
"I think this will be a group that will share the ball willingly and will work extremely hard defensively," he said. "We should be a little bit more physical than we were a year ago, really getting after things aggressively on the defensive end, while still pushing the ball and trying to affect and determine the pace of play. We want to be up-tempo and aggressive both defensively and offensively."
Do all that and UNLV (7-7 in the MWC the last two years) might have a strong enough nucleus of veterans and newcomers to do some damage in the conference. But timing is going to be paramount for a program that has been to the NCAA Tournament only twice the last 14 years.
"It is going to be a quick blending of the old with the new to determine roles and responsibilities," Kruger said. "We are going to try to determine what those are as quickly as we possibly can because we recognize that it needs to happen quickly."
For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 25th anniversary edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).