Coming Back

Once upon a time, there were glory days at the Thomas & Mack. If new UNLV basketball coach Lon Kruger has anything to say about it, those days are…

Greg Blake Miller

On March 18, 1976, the UNLV men's basketball team lost a second round NCAA tournament game to the University of Arizona. The score was 114-109, in overtime. The Rebels' 109 points was their 15th highest total of the season. The team had averaged 110.5 points per game, a national record that still stands. Earlier in the season, the Rebels had scored 164 points against Hawaii Hilo. That was a record, too, and it lasted for more than a decade. The Rebels had won 29 games and lost two, but they were still a curiosity, a Ripley's display, a slim, splashy sidebar to the serious history being made in Westwood and Lexington and Chapel Hill.

The following year, things got curiouser still. The Rebels scored 100 points or more in 14 of their first 16 games. By February 12, 1977, they were 19-2, ranked eighth in the nation, and widely assumed to be a fraud. That night, the University of Louisville, ranked third and winners of 15 straight, came to the Las Vegas Convention Center to send the Rebels back to steerage. During pre-game warm-ups, the great Darrell Griffith and his Cardinals teammates did a drill consisting exclusively of alley-oop dunks. A good number of Louisville fans had made the trip; they wore red, white and black newsboy caps and waved red, white and black pom-poms. The Cardinals took a 17-point lead in the first half. Then a strange thing happened. They lost. UNLV 99, Louisville 96. The building, a great flying saucer of a place with 6,257 chairs inside, rumbled and shook like a cheap Chevy. Las Vegas had joined the big time, and it had no intention of ever going back.

That was the first year UNLV would go to the Final Four. Three more trips would follow, and in 1990 they won the national championship. The following season the Rebels lost in the semifinal game to Duke University, the team they had crushed in the finals the year before. It was Duke's first title, the beginning of something like a dynasty. For the Rebels, it was the end.

• • •

On March 15, 2004, Lon Kruger, a builder of programs at Illinois and Florida and Kansas State and Pan American, was hired to rebuild a program at UNLV. Since 1992, when Rebel coach Jerry Tarkanian took a bitter victory lap around the Big West Conference, UNLV had chewed up and failed to digest eight coaches, saviors, builders and caretakers. Tarkanian's legend—secure in the wake of 509 Vegas victories and 20 years of single combat with the NCAA—still cast some glamour on the program, but less with each passing year. History was turning into history. Kruger wasn't being asked to start from zero—Charlie Spoonhour and his son Jay had already cleaned up a good deal of wreckage and built a solid and by-all-appearances-clean program—but he was being asked, in no uncertain terms, to bring back the national glory first earned that day in 1977, when the original, truly running Runnin' Rebels stilled the pom-poms of the Louisville faithful.

It hasn't been easy.

• • •

It is a different February, a different season. Lon Kruger is more than halfway through his first campaign at UNLV, and his team is 9-9 and preparing, on the third of the month, to play BYU on the fifth. Four days have passed since the team went to Colorado Springs and lost to the Air Force Academy by 16 points. The team that night was listless; the players were out of sync with one another. Once they fell behind, they showed no sign they could work together to come back. It wasn't supposed to be this way: Someone, somewhere believed the 2004-2005 Rebels would win the Mountain West Conference championship. At 1:50, after studying game film, the Rebels emerge from the Thomas & Mack Center tunnel and begin their pre-practice shoot-around. The players are quiet, the coaches are quiet, the stadium is quiet save the bouncing of balls and the squeak of sneakers. It is not a funereal hush, but the sort you hear in a classroom full of exam-takers. And over the next week, when they will be playing BYU, Utah and Missouri in the space of five days, the Rebels most certainly have some tests to pass.

The players and coaches huddle up; they put their hands in the air. Kruger says, "Rebels on three." They count: "One-two-three: REBELS!" And the work begins. They separate into stations; on one side of the court assistant coach Marvin Menzies works with big men; on the other, shooters work with assistant Steve Henson. Kruger moves back and forth between the stations, teaching, encouraging, cajoling, always talking but never shouting. Everything he says, he says twice: "Keep moving! Keep moving!" "Both hands," he tells junior center Louis Amundson, "Catch with two! Catch with two!" The practice is planned to the minute: 10 minutes transition offense; 10 minutes transition defense; big men—10 minutes of two on two against the zone; guards—10 minutes of ferocious three on three while an assistant coach holds a big red-cushioned pad in the key to replicate the height and bulk of big man on D. Now Henson tosses the pad to backup guard Ricky Morgan—a 6-foot, broad-shouldered transfer from Iowa State via Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan—and Morgan proceeds to harass starting point guard Jerel Blassingame with the thing.

Morgan knows his role in this drill is to make Blassingame's life a little more difficult; he knocks Blassingame down, half-playfully tosses the pad down on top of him, Blassingame gets back up, they play on. Jerel Blassingame is a 5-foot, 10-inch senior; he was recruited by Charlie Spoonhour out of LA City College, where for two years he had excelled alongside his future Rebel teammate, Romel Beck. Last season, after the elder Spoonhour retired for health reasons two-thirds through the season, Blassingame blossomed into a true Division I star. Under Jay Spoonhour's up-tempo style, he seemed liberated; suddenly he was taking over games with his astonishing foot-speed and quickness off the dribble. Before this season began, fans and commentators speculated he would be one of the nation's top point guards. Now, 18 games into his final collegiate season, fans and commentators and, most of all, Blassingame himself, are trying to figure out what on Earth has happened. In place of last year's blinding drives into the lane—turnovers; in place of the quick, deceptive passes to Beck on the wing—turnovers; in place of the perfectly-timed lay-ups while getting hammered by the opposing center—turnovers. In fairness, there have been good moments, too; Blassingame is still a leader, still capable of creating havoc for the defense with his speed and agility, but the expectations he created with his extraordinary finish a year ago have cast a shadow over any smaller accomplishments he's had this season. It is a season that, for the Rebels, might hinge on Blassingame rediscovering his confidence, his place in the flow of a new offense under a new coach.

Blassingame, Beck and senior forward Odartey Blankson are still the stars on this team, but today it is the newcomers—Morgan and junior forward Dustin Villepigue, a 6-foot-9-inch transfer from Gonzaga via Dixie College in St. George, Utah—who are the most assertive and vocal. The players drill the transition game; one group has four seconds to rebound and get a good shot off, after which the other team must rebound and push the ball to the other end. Transition, of course, is key to the running game UNLV fans would like the team to play; Kruger and Henson are quick to point out that the running game is not about rushing shots in the half-court offense, but in playing fierce defense, forcing turnovers, pulling down rebounds and filling the lanes when pushing the ball back down the court. It's about creating and capitalizing on easy opportunities in transition. The running game, in other words, has nothing to do with haste. Kruger has traditionally been a ball-control coach, stressing motion, picks, patience, and smart shots in the half-court offense; don't expect him to change his approach to those half-court sets. But, given the right personnel with the right attitude—and midway through this disappointing season, he doesn't dismiss that even now he might have the tools to work with—he would love to build a true transition running game. (It's worth noting that Tarkanian coached the "run-and-gun" style only after arriving at UNLV; his outstanding Long Beach State teams of the early '70s were known for their measured tempo and deliberate offense.)

The Rebels are energized by the transition drill. Amundson pulls down a rebound, Beck sprints down the sideline, filling the passing lane. "That a way!" says Kruger "Fill it up! Fill it up!" Beck gets the pass. "C'mon Ro!" Morgan shouts. "Hit that, Ro!" Ro hits it. Morgan sprints back on defense. "I got shooter!" he calls. "I'm back!'" All season long, Kruger has been working to get this sort of talk out of his players. "We don't have a very talkative group," says Henson. "It doesn't need to be loud, but there's so much communication that needs to take place with good basketball teams. It's so important on defense especially, and it's not something that we do real naturally." The coaches try to model the kind of talk they'd like to hear, laying down a sort of wall of chatter during drills and scrimmages; it's never loud—there is, in fact, less shouting and harrumphing at these practices than you're ever likely to see at a college workout—but it's ever-present. Sometimes, says Henson, the coaches wonder if they're talking too much. "In practice, we can pretty much talk them through everything," he says. "You know, pass, cut, move, screen, block out, but during the games we can't do that." The coaches are trying to work toward the moment when the players understand their approach so well that come game time they don't need to be cajoled into communicating. Kruger's most-often-repeated repetition during practice is "Talk! Talk!" Ideally, the players will begin to function as on-court coaches for one another, each of them willing to speak and to listen, to teach and to learn, to help each other adjust to the thousand tiny changes in each game.

All of this Kruger does while maintaining an emotional equilibrium—externally, at least—that more than a few fans have found a little bewildering this season. During January's near-loss to tiny, undermanned Fort Lewis, when the Rebels seemed scarcely to be playing defense at all, Kruger remained placid on the bench. He would, of course, call out advice, gesture for the guys to, well, maybe put their hands up, but there was no stomping or swearing or rubbing his face. There was no public dressing-down of his players. How, fans wonder, can a coach watch this ... this nonsense without going berserk? Isn't it a coach's job, in such circumstances, to go berserk? Why must Lon Kruger refuse to go berserk? "Coach is more of a mild-mannered type," says Morgan. "He just wants you to get it done, and he doesn't get into all the rah-rah stuff. He leads by example, and if you're not saying anything constructive or positive, he'd rather you not say anything at all. The Catch-22 is that he wants you to talk, so that puts you in a position where you have to find a way to say positive things."

Henson, a six-year NBA veteran who met Kruger almost 20 years ago when he went to play for him at Kansas State, says no one should expect Kruger to suddenly morph into a volcanic courtside presence. "The way he does it is the way he's done it for as long as I can remember, and I've been around him since I was 18 years old. He's not going to yell and he's not going to holler and he's not going to curse. He gets his point across without needing to do any of that. Coach is not going to change the way he's done things for years. It's worked for him; he treats people with a lot of respect, and guys appreciate that." Kruger says his approach is rooted in the simple necessity of being himself. "I think you always have to teach to your personality," he says. "I can't go out there and be phony in a rah-rah way, nor can I go out there and be phony in a chastising way. I think consistency is as important as anything. I want the players to know that what we're teaching today is not because we won or lost last night. I want them to know that we're going to be the same every day." In this way, Kruger's natural sense of calm has led him to certain firmly held principles about the business of coaching. "I think the program becomes more solid when you execute the same every day," he says. "You treat every opponent—regardless of who they are—the same, because it's more about what you do. If we execute and set that pick and if we cut hard and if we're genuinely interested in doing this for one another, it doesn't matter who we're playing. We're not going to play to the level of our opponent. I think this program needs to get to the point where we are the same every day. And I don't think I can expect that if I'm not the same every day."

• • •

Kruger is wearing a black long-sleeve T-shirt and black sweatpants. He is 52 years old, but slim as the 19-year olds around him; he walks like an athlete—the slow, sleepy stride, the slight limp (in Kruger's case, the result of an old back injury), the arms loose at his side. There is no wasted energy, no coiled pose, no thrusting of fists. An athlete knows when to idle, when to cruise, when to accelerate. Lon Kruger was once one of the greatest schoolboy sportsmen in the state of Kansas, a 23-point-per-game scorer in basketball, a 2,000-plus-yard passer in football, a star pitcher and infielder in baseball. The Houston Astros chose Kruger in the 1970 draft, but he chose to go to college at Kansas State, where he would help lead Coach Jack Hartman's team to a golden age of Wildcat basketball, with consecutive Big Eight championships in 1972 and 1973. If you take a look at the final national regular season rankings for 1973, you'll see John Wooden's UCLA Bruins at the top, Jerry Tarkanian's Long Beach State 49ers ranked third, and Kansas State at number nine. That club made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament and finished 23-5, and Kruger won the first of two consecutive conference player of the year awards. For his four years at K State, Kruger averaged 13.3 points per game, 17.6 as a senior. Perhaps most significantly, though, he was named the team's most inspirational player three seasons in a row, and captained his team twice.

In 1974, Kruger was drafted by the NBA's Atlanta Hawks and baseball's St. Louis Cardinals and was invited to the Dallas Cowboy training camp as a quarterback. A standout pitcher at K State, Kruger signed with the Cardinals and played a season of minor league baseball; he also played a year of pro basketball in Tel Aviv. In 1975, Kruger took a shot at cracking the Detroit Pistons roster, then headed back to Kansas to get his master's degree in physical education at Pittsburg State. There, in 1976, he began his coaching career as a graduate assistant. He got his first head-coaching opportunity in 1982 at Pan American; by 1986, he had turned a program that won just five games the year before his arrival into a 20-win team; this was enough to get him an opportunity to lead the program at his alma mater.

As head coach at K State, Kruger led his team to four straight NCAA tournaments, including a 25-9 campaign and a trip to the Elite Eight in 1989. His next stop, in 1990, was Florida, where within four years he led a traditionally mediocre program to the 1994 Final Four. That year's veteran team was 29-8; two years of rebuilding followed—in 1994-95 the Gators went 17-13 and lost in the first round of the NCAAs; in 1995-96, the team went just 12-16. The trajectory of Kruger's stay at Florida had echoed that of his years at Kansas State, where the program followed up the successful 1988-89 campaign with records of 19-11 and 17-15. When Kruger was hired at UNLV, critics would point to the way—from a statistical point of view, at least—his programs seemed to improve rapidly, then run out of gas. But Kruger's tenure at Illinois from 1996-2000 fractures that theory: In his first two seasons, the Illini went 22-10 and 23-10, making the tournament both years. In his third year, the team went just 14-18. But in Kruger's final season at Illinois, the team went 22-10 once more and was back in the NCAAs. By the time Kruger left Illinois for a five-year, $10 million deal to coach the NBA's Hawks—a statistically unhappy two-and-a-half-year stint with an injury riddled club—his career college coaching record was 318-233, with nine trips to the NCAA tournament in 18 years. For those of you keeping track at home, UNLV has made it to the NCAAs twice in the last 13 years.

• • •

The players do defensive slides. They work on free throws. At one point, they skip. (It's astonishing how little noise 15 young men, each of whom weigh somewhere just south or just north of 200 pounds, can make while skipping.) They take a short break, during which the subject of conversation, remarkably, is that Freddie Banks, the great Rebel shooting guard of the mid-1980s, will be inducted into the UNLV Hall of Fame. "What's up with Greg Anthony?" asks Morgan, referring to the point guard from the Rebels' 1990 national championship squad. The players have, it seems, familiarized themselves with the ghosts of Rebels past, partly because over 50 of them, according to Kruger, still live in the Las Vegas Valley, and some of them drop by from time to time to dish out advice and build a vital bridge to the team's glory days. Later, Morgan says joining this tradition is the great intangible reward of playing for the Rebels. "I'm so proud just to be on this floor," he says. "When you look up at the [retired jersey] banners and see [Ricky] Sobers and [Larry] Johnson and all those guys, those guys are Hall of Fame material. It's just an honor to play in this type of atmosphere. I just can't wait till we can start getting more W's for these fans."

Next comes the scrimmage, red jerseys versus white, four on five, with that big red pad in the post and Kruger seemingly everywhere all at once, cheering the players on, stopping the action every now and then, reminding Blassingame to use his speed by stepping around the defender's weak foot—"If the guy guards you here, step it up and go down the middle"—reminding defenders to force right-handed guards to the left, reminding big men Amundson and Villepigue and Joel Anthony to box out. An attitude is being sculpted here; painstakingly, moment-by-moment, a coach's insistence on staying positive is fostering a sense of responsibility in his players. Morgan dumps off a pass inside to no one in particular; it rolls out of bounds. "Good idea," says Kruger. "My bad," says Morgan. After every mistake, someone says, "That's my fault." After every success, the players are pleased for one another. "Keep a good pace," says Kruger, "not too hurried, not frantic, make plays for each other. ... If you get there and you don't like what you've got when you get there, turn it down and pass it back." Players huddle, red jerseys with Menzies, whites with Henson, Kruger first here, then there. They raise their hands: "Hard work on three. One-two-three: HARD WORK!" Then they go back to their positions, and they work hard.

At the end of practice, Villepigue leads stretches, and Kruger stretches with the team. Then a handful of players stays around for extra instruction. On one end of the court, freshman forward René Rogeau and senior guard Colin Darfour work with Henson and Menzies. Neither player is likely to see more than 10 minutes cumulative playing time this year, yet both want to work, both want to learn, and the coaches are happy to teach them. All through practice, in fact, the starters treated the reserves as equals, cheering them on and pushing them hard and relying on them as partners in the learning process. This is exactly the way Kruger wants it. "What we're trying to get across is preparation for the real world," he says, "treating others in an appropriate way and appreciating the effort of others regardless of points and rebounds." These post-practice sessions are among Kruger's favorite parts of the job; each player has different needs and responds to different types of encouragement, and now Kruger can tailor his approach to the individual. "To throw a blanket over the players and treat them all the same would be easy, but I don't think it would be fair to them, or to the program," he says. "I don't think you can get the most out of each player by treating everyone the same."

While Rogeau is learning some strong moves to the basket, Louis Amundson is at the far end of the court, working on his free throws. Amundson has been one of the success stories of the season, growing from a hardworking, blue-collar player, to a quick, aggressive and highly skilled post player. The one problem has been his free throws, where his shooting form—and shooting percentage—has a bit too closely resembled an otherwise fine role model, Shaquille O'Neal. In practice, though, his shot is much more fluid than in games. He's missing some, but just barely, and the shots are soft, the backspin true. Kruger comes to him, steps to the line, extends his arms in front of him and forms a little triangle with his hands. He looks through them like a film director, or a marksman, says a couple words to Amundson, steps away.

Louis Amundson hits 10 of his next 11 free throws.

• • •

A confession: I am a fan. I was at that Louisville game 28 years ago, a mop-headed 7-year-old, wearing an applesauce-colored sweater I believed to be good luck, shouting fond wishes and my best hoop wisdom to Gondo and Easy Eddie and Reggie and the "brothers" Smith—all these college kids who would someday be the ghosts and legends of Rebel glory, the ones who would cast hard-to-shake shadows and set impossible standards and tease with the hope of a revival. I was there, catching a peculiar bug that has yet to leave my system—this strange euphoria of over-identification with the heartbreak and joy, failure and excellence, frustration and flow—experienced by others. That bunch of college kids spoiled me rotten with joy and excellence and flow. Part of being a fan, though, is experiencing with equal intensity the heartbreak and failure and frustration. A fan's euphoria comes in shades both bright and dark. The worst moments of caring about a team are infinitely better than caring about nothing; and when a city of fans suffers, it at least suffers together. A community of fans does not die with losing; it dies with apathy.

When the Rebels take the court to play BYU on February 5, there are fewer than 6,000 people sitting in the Thomas & Mack Center. Losing, in and of itself, does not necessarily produce apathy—just ask Cubs fans—but it creates conditions in which apathy can flourish. The Rebels' fade from the national scene these past dozen years has taken place concurrently with tremendous demographic change in the Valley, with much of the Rebels' long-time fan base moving from more central locations—Paradise, Winchester, Spring Valley—to Henderson and Summerlin. Those who moved to the Valley's far northwest suddenly found themselves with a very convincing case not to go to the Rebels' games; the case went something like this: "It's 6:30 p.m.; should I take Summerlin Parkway to the 95 to the 15 to Tropicana? Or not." To fans in, say, LA, who spent years getting from Glendale to Inglewood to watch the Lakers, this doesn't sound like much of an excuse. But combine lousy commutes with the incredible shrinking national basketball powerhouse, and certain fans begin to ask—understandably, I suppose—why they should bother. Meanwhile, as oldtime fans moved to the outskirts, the city's population swelled with people who had their own loyalties to their own teams in their own towns. They were willing to become Rebel fans, just as the oldtimers were willing to remain Rebel fans. But first the Rebels had to give them a reason.

This is a noon-time game. When I was a kid, Saturday noon-time games generally meant national television, bright lights in the rafters, Dick Enberg or Brent Musberger or Billy Packer somewhere on the premises asking if this upstart, outlaw program from the desert could possibly be for real. For chip-on-the-shoulder Las Vegans it was always another glorious opportunity to win, and grin, and tell the world to get used to it. Today, there is no national television. What there is is a young BYU team wallowing in last place in the Mountain West Conference. If nothing else, this is a chance for the Rebels to get well.

Midway through the first half, UNLV trails 20-17, and each individual voice in the stadium can be heard. On the sidelines, Lon Kruger is calm, clapping, gesturing for his players to get their hands up, quietly but insistently encouraging them to do what they are capable of doing. Andy Hannan hits a three-pointer to tie the game. Players off the bench—Morgan, Villepigue, Terry—play with focus and intensity in support of Blankson, who is everywhere, rebounding, penetrating, shooting from outside. Two minutes before the end of the half, during a timeout, there is a little contest down on the court: Two small kids pull on oversized Rebel uniforms and, with the help of Hey Reb—the UNLV mascot—and special guest marketers Ronald McDonald and Hamburglar, they dribble toward the basket. One of them hits a 5-footer. The crowd roars. After the time out, Blankson hits two free throws, then nails a 17-foot to close out the half. Rebels 33, BYU 27. Again, the fans cheer. But not like they did for the kid.

During halftime, Jerry Tarkanian passes in front of the UNLV student section. He gets a standing ovation. These kids were 8 years old the last time Tark coached the Rebels. He waves in acknowledgement, crosses the floor, disappears.

The first big roar of the second half comes, once more, during a time out. Allegiant Air is sponsoring a paper airplane-throwing contest. Some guy has twisted his plane into a corkscrew configuration. He tosses a beautiful spiral. It soars over the full 94 feet of hardwood. Moments later, BYU scores inside to tie the game at 46. Blankson hits a three; Rebels lead, 49-46. The Rebels play spectacular defense, then commit a foul with one second left on the shot clock. The students chant "Bullshit." BYU's Keena Young, who is black, steps to the free-throw line. The students chant, "You're not Mormon." I am embarrassed for the entire city of Las Vegas. I like to think that in the good old days, this sort of thing did not happen. But I suppose this sort of thing has always happened, everywhere. A fan takes on the burden—the senseless, grandiose burden—of identifying himself not only with a team, but with a community; there are, inevitably, times when the burden makes you want to cover up the insignia and move someplace else.

Odartey Blankson is unstoppable. Unfortunately, only Odartey Blankson is unstoppable. With 3:30 left in the game, the Rebels lead 61-54, mostly thanks to Odartey Blankson. After a foul by Blassingame, it's 61-56. Then Hannan passes up a jumper on the wing and telegraphs his pass back out. BYU steals it and scores: 61-58. Another BYU basket: 61-60. Blassingame nearly turns it over, the ball volleyballs back out to him, then he does turn it over. BYU calls time out. The crowd is fully awake, chanting "RE-BELS." A lousy possession: Blankson misses a 22-footer as the shot clock expires; Beck misses the followup, then Villepigue tips it in but gets called for offensive goaltending, though it's unclear whether or when any offensive goaltending actually took place. There are 10.9 seconds left in the game. The Rebel defense is ferocious, airtight. With 5.6 seconds left, Hannan is called for fouling a shooter outside the three-point arc. The Rebels are like puppies, enthusiastic and energetic and making a terrible mess; BYU hits all three free throws. BYU 63, UNLV 61. Unbelievable.

The Rebels storm down the court. Villepigue hits Blassingame with a perfect pass, Blassingame darts around, past and through the BYU defense, and, with .08 left in the game, he scores. This is the way Jerel Blassingame can play when he plays like Jerel Blassingame. It's 63-63. Overtime. The crowd is deafening. The band plays "Viva Las Vegas."

If you are a UNLV Rebel basketball fan, or a UNLV Rebel basketball player, or the UNLV Rebels' first-year coach, you know that what happens next is not entirely acceptable. Turnovers, fouls, ill-advised long-range rim-clangers, more fouls. An overtime rout. BYU 82, UNLV 72. It is the low point of the season. On the radio postgame show, Kruger is calm as always. Afterward, callers question his enthusiasm, his heart, his devotion. One woman calls and says that all Kruger wants to do is run a clean program. Apparently she sees playing by the rules and winning as mutually exclusive. The broadcasters, Jon Sandler and Glen Gondrezick—the latter being the very Rebel who hit the winning shot all those years ago against Louisville—defend Kruger. Some fans seem to believe that the only explanation for not winning is not wanting to win. As a result, a man who has spent most of his life winning suddenly stands accused of simply not giving a damn.

But these are fans. Their minds, fortunately, can be changed.

• • •

In the den of Rebel phantoms, there are the names you want to hear—Theus, Augmon, Gilliam, Wade—and there are those you'd just as soon have never heard: Lloyd Daniels and Lamar Odom. Not that you have anything against Lloyd and Lamar, it's just that wherever these names appeared with regard to Rebel basketball, trouble was sure to follow. Daniels, one of the great schoolboy players in New York history, was supposed to be bound for UNLV in 1987, but a drug arrest in North Las Vegas that year ensured that he never played a game for the Rebels. A six-year NCAA investigation of the program followed, after which UNLV wound up on three years' probation. More importantly, the Daniels recruitment was part of the murky broth of issues that created acrimony between Tarkanian and then-UNLV President Robert Maxson and led to Tarkanian's departure. Odom, a similarly gifted player, was set to play for the Rebels in 1997, but he, too, left town before playing a single game. The fallout from his recruitment wound up costing Rebel coach Bill Bayno his job in December 2000 and left UNLV's basketball program with four more years of NCAA probation. Among the penalties imposed were scholarship restrictions that the program is only beginning to recover from.

All of this means that, whatever the woman who called the radio show after the BYU loss might like to believe, UNLV cannot afford to do anything but run a clean program. First, the NCAA has the power to close down a program altogether if it finds repeated major infractions. Second, it should be clear enough to Rebel fans that NCAA penalties—whether justly imposed or not—have had a lasting negative impact on the program's on-court results. UNLV Athletic Director Mike Hamrick understood all of this perfectly well when he hired Lon Kruger, who (like the Spoohours before him) has an impeccable reputation for playing by the rules.

"We're going to run a clean program," Kruger says. "I'd have no satisfaction in winning if we didn't. Nor could I stand up in front of the guys in the locker room and have any credibility if I'd done anything with any one of those guys that wasn't within the rules. But we're going to win. We're going to do it the right way. I don't toot that real loudly, but I also don't lack confidence in that being accomplished." Kruger says the infrastructure is in place to rebuild a national power at UNLV; the city is attractive to players and their families, the university has been steadily gaining respect across the country, the team has first-rate facilities, and then there's that tradition—the good part of the tradition, the one filled not with dire warnings but grand goals. Kruger is still adding the final pieces to his recruiting class for the 2005-2006 season, but pundits are already ranking it as one of the nation's best.

• • •

First, though, there is this year. That means playing Utah. And playing Utah means playing Andrew Bogut.

Bogut is a 7-foot-tall sophomore center from Australia. A year ago he was a curiosity. Now he is a superstar. With Bogut playing like a certain NBA lottery pick, the Utes enter the game with a 19-3 record (7-0 in conference play) and ranked 15th in the nation. Coming off the BYU loss, the Rebels have a choice tonight: They can come in demoralized, roll over before the onslaught of a superior opponent and declare their season all but dead. Or they can put into action the rather rah-rah mantra of their mild-mannered coach: "Scratch, claw and fight." As it turns out, the Rebels have decided to fight.

Amundson plays fierce, unyielding defense on Bogut; Rickey Morgan, starting in place of Blassingame, lends a steady hand running the offense; Blassingame, coming off the bench with some nagging injuries, goes 3-3 from three-point range. Beck is out with an injured foot, but Michael Umeh and Andy Hannan fill in ably at the wings. Most importantly, though, the team plays like a team. When the Rebels fall behind by 11 in the second half, they come right back. The crowd senses that something is amiss: the Rebels are staying in a game that figured to be a blowout. The stadium, just over a third full, is loud and raucous and hungry for good news. Before the game, Utah Coach Ray Giacoletti said UNLV had a lot of talent and "probably the best coach in the conference"; at the time the compliment seemed a little backhanded, with its implied question, So what the hell is wrong with them? Now, though, it seems the Rebels really are equipped to play with the mighty Utes. With 1:50 left in the game, Umeh hits a shot, is fouled, sinks the free throw, and the Rebels trail 52-51. That's as close as they'll get tonight; Utah holds on to win, 57-53. The Rebels have held Utah to just two field goals in the final 11 minutes of the game. They've limited Bogut to 14 points and four rebounds while forcing him into six turnovers. They've lost, yes. But they've lost, if such a thing can be done, in a promising way. "We battled," Kruger says. "Because of Bogut, we had to trust one another. It wasn't a battle of individuals; it was a battle as a group, and more so than at any other point this year I can say that."

All season long, the Rebels have struggled to execute in games what they're taught in practice. Henson calls this "slippage," a common basketball malady in which the things you do well in a short drill get a little bit worse a longer drill, the things you do well in a longer drill get a little bit worse in a scrimmage, and the things you do well in a scrimmage get a little bit worse in a game. The best team, says Henson, is the team that has the least slippage from practice to game. And today, the Rebels showed less slippage than ever before. Most importantly, they showed the clearest signs yet of taking on the attitude Kruger and his staff have been trying to model: selflessness, absolute sincerity in their commitment to one another, pride of ownership in the program itself. "If you don't have ownership, you can always say, 'Well, it's someone else's responsibility,'" says Kruger. "But if you have ownership, you're going to stick your neck out there a little further, spend a little more time, feel a little more accountable."

The players have now begun to speak Kruger's language. At the practice the day after the Utah game, everyone seems to understand that, on this team, they need to lean on one another if there is to be any success. Blankson's heroics in the BYU game—33 points, 13 rebounds, tireless defense—hadn't prevented a miserable loss, but a true team effort against Utah had nearly brought a surprising win. "When you're losing, guys have to come together," Amundson says. "You can either come apart and the team gets fractured or you come together and make a good season out of it. We're at the point right now where we have to come together and salvage the season."

• • •

Here is what you need to know about the Rebels' game against Missouri on February 9. About midway through the second half, Rebel freshman Curtis Terry throws up an off-balance three-pointer with :01 left on the shot clock, and it goes in. This is precisely the sort of thing that, as a rule, does not happen to the Rebels this year. This is the sort of thing that happens to a team when things are going well. Maybe, one wonders—and, remember: I am a fan— things are beginning to go well. A year ago, the Rebels went into Columbia, Missouri, and lost to the Tigers by 34 points on national TV. It was the sort of game the networks cut away from about three minutes after halftime. This year, against an erratic Missouri team that could be the Rebels' Midwestern twin, things are different.

A minute after Terry's shot gives the Rebels a 54-45 lead, sophomore guard Michael Umeh hits an 18-foot jumper to extend the lead to 11, and the crowd bursts into its "RE-BELS" chorus. Suddenly it feels as if the BYU game never took place. After UNLV's valiant effort against Utah and today's comeback after an early 13-3 deficit, the fans see in the team what they've been waiting all year to see: guts. The team is playing together, selflessly; everyone in Kruger's 10-man rotation is contributing. No one sulks. No one quits. And still, in the final minutes, the game nearly slips away. With just over two minutes left, the Rebels lead 67-60. After a Missouri three-point play, Terry misses a 10-footer, Blankson leaps for a follow up slam, misses, hangs on the rim for a fraction of a second on his way down—largely because Louis Amundson is standing underneath him—and gets called for a technical foul. Less than a minute later the score is 67-67. It feels like BYU all over again. UNLV calls a time out; Kruger diagrams a play; he is as animated in the huddle as he's been all year. Blassingame brings the ball down court, works it to Blankson on the wing. Blankson hits a three-pointer. The Rebels hold on to win, 74-71. The game ends appropriately enough, with all five players diving on the floor to grab a loose ball. On the radio postgame show, Gondrezick asks Curtis Terry which Rebel was supposed to be responsible for stopping Tiger guard Thomas Gardner, who at one point hit three straight three-pointers. Terry pauses. You can almost hear him smile. He knows what Coach Kruger would say.

"We all were," he says.

Three days later, at San Diego State, the Rebels will fall behind by 18 points in the second half. They will come back. They will trail once more, by 10 points, with 28.5 seconds left. They will come back again. With time running out, Curtis Terry will hit another off-balance three-pointer. He will send the game into overtime. The Rebels will win, 93-91. Two days later, Lon Kruger will be in his office, working on what comes next, pleased but not euphoric, even-keeled as ever, thinking out loud about how his team has become a team, wondering if it will remain one. "Without question, winning reinforces changing attitudes," he will say. "If we can win a few games, then that attitude change happens more quickly. Everyone's happy right now because we won a couple ballgames. How deep that runs will probably still be tested."

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