Las Vegas Sun

May 19, 2019

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A juggernaut awaits them

Ron Kantowski on the difference between UNLV’s run to the Sweet 16 last year and its chances to do so again today

Lon Kruger

Sam Morris

I’m really happy for our guys,” UNLV basketball coach Lon Kruger said

The opportunity of a lifetime?

Or mission impossible?

At 10 minutes before 4 today, UNLV will play the biggest basketball game of the Lon Kruger era. The Rebels will line up against Kansas — awesome with a capital “A” Kansas, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional Kansas, a lot of the so-called experts’ pick to go all the way Kansas — in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at the Qwest Center.

That’s why those within the Rebel program see this unexpected shot at joining the bracket-busting hall of fame as a good thing. To them, it’s like being selected to bid on the showcase on “The Price Is Right.”

But it’s also why those outside the program expected Kruger to dress all in black for the pregame news conference and hang upside down from the ceiling like he was casing the joint for priceless jewels a la Tom Cruise in the movies.

“I’m really happy for our guys,” Kruger said a day after the Rebels opened the tournament with a 71-58 victory over a Kent State team that shot the ball like Marlin Perkins, who used to star in a TV show that was named for this place. “I think (they are) very deserving to get to not only the tournament, but the second round.

“(But) sometimes, maybe you have to be careful what you wish for.

“Kansas is so good and so athletic and sometimes you get a talented team like that and they lean on the talent.”

Well, at least the Jayhawks won’t be able to lean on the Rebels, or they’d fall over. UNLV’s tallest player is 6-8 Matt Shaw, who doesn’t start. Kansas has five guys taller than Shaw, three of whom start or play serious minutes. Oh, and they’ve also got Brandon Rush, a 6-foot-6 All-American guard, and who’s gonna guard him?

“It’s definitely going to be a battle all night,” said Rebels guard/forward/center Rene Rougeau, who was a walk-on, a foreign term to teams such as Kansas with their rosters chock full of Parade and McDonald’s All-Americans and other assorted blue chip recruits. “You know, of course, Kansas has so many different weapons.”

Yeah, Rene, we know.

In the locker room after the Kent State game, a lot of the Rebels, most of whom were at least around last year when UNLV stunned Wisconsin, a No. 2 seed, in Chicago, were hanging their hats on that game. But it’s not exactly the same.

True, the Badgers were a good team, certainly better than the Rebels. But Wisconsin has guys named Krabbenhoft, Stiemsma and Butch playing up front.

The Badgers can take a basketball between their massive meat hooks and squash the air right out of it. But they can’t run with it.

Wisconsin is a bunch of offensive tackles in short pants. It’s a football school. Kansas is a basketball school. It has sent 49 players to the NBA.

“Our experience last year is definitely something we can look back on and count on,” said Curtis Terry, the UNLV point guard. “But everybody knows we’re a new team.”

The problem: Kansas is the same ol’ Kansas. Maybe the Rebels can be Bucknell or Bradley or one of those other teams from the bottom of the bracket that start with “B” that have bedeviled the superior Jayhawks in NCAA Tournaments past. That’s the thinking in the UNLV camp, even if nobody will express it in front of a microphone.

Let K-State’s Michael Beasley guarantee wins and talk smack about Kansas. The Rebels, like that kid from overmatched Portland State — “Those guys were cool. It wasn’t like they were out there trash talking or anything,” said the Vikings’ Dupree Lucas — came to worship at the Kansas altar on Friday.

“This is a great opportunity for our basketball program and for us this season to go out there and play a team like Kansas, which is one of the top programs in the country year in and year out and is having a great year this year,” Terry said. “So we’ve got to line up and let the pieces fall where they may.”

He said pieces, not chips, although it’s chips with which UNLV is playing. It’s all house money at this point for the Rebels, who have done a wonderful job just getting this far with a lineup that consists of one good player (Wink Adams), two former walk-ons (Terry and Rougeau), an old man (Corey Bailey, 27 years old) and an undersized center guy who tries really, really hard (Joe Darger).

So it’s time to dress all in black and start hanging upside down from the ceiling. The opportunity of a lifetime is almost here.

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