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October 4, 2015

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Ray Brewer: From the Pressbox

ray brewer:

Kruger leaving for Oklahoma isn’t all that bad

Lon Kruger at UNLV

UNLV coach Lon Kruger waves to fans after cutting down the net following UNLV's 78-70 win over BYU in the Mountain West Conference championship game Saturday, March 10, 2007. Launch slideshow »

KSNV: Lon Kruger Leaving UNLV?

Ryan Greene discusses the potential departure of Lon Kruger as the UNLV Men's Basketball coach.

This is the opportunity the UNLV basketball program needed.

The Rebels couldn’t have accomplished anything more with Lon Kruger at the helm of the program. As strange as that sounds considering Kruger — who agreed to a reported seven-year, $16 million contract Friday to become Oklahoma’s coach — brought in his seven-year tenure Rebel Fever back to Southern Nevada, it was obvious this year that the program had hit its ceiling.

At best, they had become a team that gets eliminated in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

While for some schools that’s nothing to be ashamed of, and something that was purely a fantasy at UNLV before Kruger was hired in 2004, the expectations have always been higher in Las Vegas.

Give Kruger credit for taking the program to another level. They went from a team that was annually on the NCAA Tournament bubble, to a program that periodically squeaks into the top 25 rankings, wins significant games and is again well-thought-of nationally.

But there is so much more to accomplish. And, with the way the Rebels have performed the past two years, it appeared they had maxed-out their potential. UNLV has played in four of the past five NCAA tournaments, but was eliminated in the first round the past two years. This year, the Rebels were manhandled by Illinois in embarrassing fashion.

The loss was a signal that changes had to be made. A shake-up — whether it was with assistant coaches, recruiting strategies or player development — was needed.

It appears Kruger has helped the program take that step. His departure opens the door for UNLV to bring in a fresh face, someone who can build on the foundation Kruger laid and take the program to new heights. Yes, even higher than 2007, when the Rebels advanced to the Sweet 16, winning their first tournament game since reaching the Final Four in 1991.

The new coach — let me join the hordes of people lobbying for former Rebel Dave Rice — needs to be someone who understands the program’s rich tradition and lofty expectations.

The Rebels are the darlings of Las Vegas. They are the professional sports team in a city that has no such franchise.

The new coach needs to be able to sell that message to recruits. Kruger was great at developing players — Louis Amundson and Joel Anthony had no business being in the NBA until Kruger arrived — but did a sub-par job on the recruiting trail. With nationally respected high school programs Findlay Prep and Bishop Gorman High in UNLV’s backyard, it’s safe to say Kruger repeatedly came up short in attracting top-tier talent. That needs to change.

While several are surely steaming that Kruger elected to leave, you can’t fault his logic. Oklahoma plays in a major conference, its games are televised by a respected network and the athletic department has unlimited resources.

At UNLV, dealing with a budget crisis would have been part of moving forward.

Now, Kruger has a fresh $16 million contract. And, UNLV has a chance to make a fresh start.

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