Mid-Terms: Mid-Terms: Runnin’ Rebels Pre-Conference Grades


UNLV Runnin’ Rebels (8-5)


Rebels start off hot, simmer down, and warm back up again before starting conference play on New Year’s Day.


Any coach will tell you that within every season, there are three mini-seasons, i.e., first, there’s the pre-conference play season. The second is conference play, and last but not least is tournament play. We will now look at how the Rebels have done so far and what to expect from this Rebel team as the Mountain West Conference play starts on January 1st.




Photo Credit: LV Sports Biz

First-year head coach Kevin Kruger endured a baptism by fire so far in his inaugural tenure. That was expected, having a fan base that measures success by late runs in March, despite not having played in a Final Four since 1991. Kruger managed to maintain his even-keeled demeanor amidst a hot start, a cold stretch, a benching of his best player (leading scorer Bryce Hamilton), injuries, and a lack of fan support. Kruger did all of that during the re-emergence of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Kruger’s team appeared to be designed to scrap for victories and fight till the end as they won their first three games by a mere average of 3.6 ppg before losing their first game to the then #2 ranked Michigan Wolverines by 13 points in a game that saw the Rebels battle with the Big Ten favorites for the majority of the game. The more experienced and seasoned Wolverines separated themselves later in the second half.

The following night the Rebels lost for the second time in a tightly contested game against the Wichita State Shockers. A game that displayed the Rebels‘ resiliency and grit and, if not for a questionable call, could have gone in the Rebels‘ favor and had them sitting at 4-1. Their only loss coming via a Final Four projected team!

The Rebels dropped three straight games by an average of 20.6 ppg, and it was at this time, Kruger appeared to have lost his patience with shot selection, decision-making and opted to make an example of his best player Hamilton. In the early stages of a game, Hamilton pulled a mid-range jump shot in a delayed transition type situation, much to the chagrin of Kruger, which prompted him to not only pull Hamilton from the game but also not start him in the next game.


UNLV vs Michigan
Photo Credit: TQ/Franchise Sports Media

During a losing streak, such a bold move did not sit well with the few remaining Rebel fans still loyal to the Scarlet & Gray. Still, Kruger stood his ground and made it clear that he demanded certain things from his players, and that included a player of Hamilton’s stature.

As of late, and heading into Mountain West Conference play, the most pressing issues surrounding the UNLV basketball program tend to be cohesion, Covid-19 concerns, and the health of Michael Nuga (knee), Victor Iwuakor (shoulder), and James Hampshire (shoulder). Kruger has managed his team, staff, and the media with a mild-mannered demeanor and a sense of calm that he seldom breaks from, but has also shown at times that he can get fired up in the same way he did as a player.

All in all, Kruger and his staff, which consists of Tim Buckley, Carlin Hartman, Brandon Chappell and, DeShawn Henry, have done an excellent job, considering the immense pressure from their fan base to win yesterday, even though six months ago 79% of his team didn’t even know one another!




A turning point in this young season came when Head coach Kevin Kruger opted to sit leading scorer Bryce Hamilton in the middle of a game and then opted NOT to start him the next game…..Hamilton responded with his best stretch of basketball



www.FranchiseSportsMedia.com - UNLV vs UCSD
Photo Credit: TQ for Franchise Sports Media

The fact above that almost 80% of this Rebels team didn’t even know one another six months ago is a more significant obstacle than the average fan may be capable of understanding. One of the more challenging things we have to deal with as coaches year in and year out is breaking incoming freshmen of their old habits from their high school programs.

Regardless of whether or not they come from good programs or bad programs, or whether or not they were decent players, great players, or even elite players, we must break them of their old habits and establish new ones that are more consistent with what our team goals may be.

The idea of doing so with ten new faces is almost unheard of, so the monumental task that the UNLV Runnin Rebel coaching staff had to shoulder was a burden that could not possibly be handled alone. The players themselves must be commended for coming together and adhering to the demands of the coaching staff. So many new players bring with them multiple variations of skill sets, routines, terminology, styles of play, work habits, etc. It’s not as simple as just stepping onto the court and playing basketball. Basketball is a game of communication, cohesion, and camaraderie, things that are hard to come by and don’t just develop overnight.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        GRADE: B



The following are the Cast of Characters that I have observed over the early portion of this 2021-22 season. 




Bryce Hamilton.

Hamilton is once again leading the Rebels in scoring at 18.6 ppg. He’s also leading the team in steals after recently putting together a string of high-scoring games. Hamilton struggled earlier getting on the same page as Kruger but appeared to have found his stride and figured out precisely what Kruger expects from him. After flirting with the NBA draft, as well as the transfer portal last spring, Hamilton says he’s happy to be back on Tropicana & Paradise and loves being a Rebel!

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      GRADE: A-



Jordan McCabe.

The Rebel point guard is doing a great job leading the offense. McCabe is averaging five assists per game and currently is 7th in the nation with a 4:1 assist to turnover ratio. Leading a team that doesn’t particularly shoot the ball well and doesn’t rely on transition offense for scoring, the need for a point guard that values the basketball is paramount. The West Virginia Mountaineer transfer has been a steady hand for the Rebels and has been one less thing for Kruger and his staff to worry about.





Royce Hamm Jr. 

At this point, last season Hamm was averaging 2.4 rebounds and had a total of 24 rebounds after ten games for the University of Texas, which included a 12 rebound performance against Central Michigan. As a Rebel, Hamm is flirting with the reality of averaging a double-double! His 9.9 RPG and 9.2 ppg is a remarkable turnaround for a guy who averaged 2.8 ppg and 2.8 RPG. He currently has more defensive rebounds after 13 games than he had the entire season as a Longhorn. Hamm also leads the team in blocks.





Donovan Williams. 

This Runnin Rebel swingman has gone Hollywood! Scooping up followers daily and listeners for his podcast, “What’s the Word with D Will.” Williams has also scooped up the egos of many opponents and many more fans as he’s quickly become a fan favorite, be it at Thomas & Mack Center, T-Mobile Arena, or Mandalay Bay Michelob Ultra Arena. He’s second in scoring and rebounding for the Rebels at 12.5 ppg and 4.2 RPG, a drastic improvement from his mere 3.4 ppg and 1.0 RPG last season at the University of TexasWilliams is also shooting 41% from the three-point line.





Josh Baker. 

Baker has done a little bit of everything for Kruger. In 13 games, no player has shown the level of consistency that Baker has demonstrated. The juco standout transferred to UNLV from Hutchinson CC, where he shot over 40% behind the arc. Baker has been a reliable defender, capable scorer and passer, a legitimate outside threat, and a Steph Curry-like free throw shooter at 96.2%! In 13 games, Baker has only missed one free throw this season, 25/26.





Mike Nuga. 

In Kevin Kruger’s offense, there are two indelible offensive skills that players need to be offensively efficient; (1) three-point shooting and (2) straight-line drives. A respectable three-point shooter, the intense Nuga is most dangerous when driving the basketball with the ferocity of an NFL fullback. If there is any player on the UNLV roster that is anymore tailor-made for Kruger’s offense, he has yet to rear his head because Nuga has proven to be it! Nuga has driven the ball straight into the paint with a high level of success against Gardner-Webb and the University of Michigan. Nuga is the sole straight-line driver on this Rebel team, and when he is healthy, and the Rebels improve their three-point shooting, they will become a contender in the Mountain West Conference.





David Muoka

Coming into this season, one of the biggest questions was whether the Rebels could find a “Few Good Men” to man the post. The interior play of Muoka has been crucial for the Rebels. Muoka has taken on the Goliath challenge and has played consistently and managed to establish himself at pivotal moments of various games when Hamm wasn’t playing well or was in early foul trouble.






Photo Credit: Trisha LaCoste/Franchise Sports Media

Justin Webster/Marvin Coleman/Reece Brown/James Hampshire/Victor Iwuakor

Webster has yet to reach the form he displayed last season at the University of Hawai’i, aside from a couple of outstanding performances against Whittier and SMU. Webster has not had many opportunities but has proven that he is capable and bouncy enough on defense to be utilized. I wouldn’t be surprised to see significant minutes from him soon.

Bouncing back from an injury is never easy. However, Coleman has provided consistent play as a backup point guard. Coleman has provided valuable minutes and maturity to a sometimes antsy bunch. His steady hand and calming demeanor are helpful in ways seldom seen on the stat sheet.

Brown has proven his worth to his teammates and the UNLV coaching staff time and time again with his relentless hard work daily in practice. Whether it’s battling down low against the likes of Royce Hamm or David Muoka or its guarding offensive juggernaut Bryce Hamilton amidst a plethora of his trademark crossovers, hesitation dribbles, spin moves, and up & under moves, Brown has made his presence felt.

Hampshire, mentioned above, has yet to play a second for the Rebels. It’s hard for the Rebel faithful to imagine how the complexion of this team would alter if Hampshire were available. Hampshire’s presence would’ve allowed Hamm to move over and play more freely in space and not be the primary post presence in the middle. Unfortunately, it appears as though the shoulder injury that has hampered the 7-1 fifth-year senior has sidelined him for the remainder of the season.

I have watched thousands of minutes of UNLV basketball throughout my life as a Las Vegan, and I can assure you that NO Rebel has ever made such an impression in only 15 minutes of basketball. Iwuakor has only played 15 minutes! He has not scored a point and has only pulled down two rebounds! So what’s all the fuss? He is slowly getting acclimated to game speed and physical contact, and even Stevie Wonder can see that he is an absolute DUDE! Rebel fans will go crazy when the most athletic player on the roster is a full go and Kruger inserts him into the lineup at 100%.






One thing is sure if you attend a UNLV Runnin Rebel basketball game…freshman Keshon Gilbert is a terrorist to opposing ballhandlers! Lord have mercy on the souls that attempt to bring the basketball up the floor against one of the best on-ball defenders that the Rebels have had in a long time. Gilbert is a natural ball-hawk. He defends on the ball and any guard on the West Coast. He defends the ball exceptionally well, without fouling, and is extremely gifted with on-ball pressure even while fighting over ball screens.  He is willing and able to pick up older, more experience guards 94-feet as well! When Gilbert’s offensive decision-making and ability to knock down the three-ball, he will be one of the best guards in the Mountain West Conference. Gilbert has the potential and the skillset to become an all-time Rebel great!





The Rebels will start Mountain West Conference play on New Year’s Day at the Thomas & Mack Center at 1:00 PM against the Aztecs of San Diego State University.

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-Che Jones – Franchise Sports Media

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