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May 26, 2022

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A need for more toughness UNLV’s biggest lesson learned so far

Rebels in next week face ‘best opportunity’ to develop a rougher exterior

UNLV vs. Santa Clara

Ron Lewis / AP

UNLV’s Tre’von Willis, right, puts pressure on Santa Clara’s Robert Smith during a Dec. 5 game at Santa Clara.

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By no stretch of the imagination does UNLV coach Lon Kruger expect his team to get much bigger or stronger physically during the second half of the 2009-10 season.

However, Kruger continues to ask his players to give off the impression that they've swollen up some in terms of their approach and execution.

"We can play a lot more physical, with more attitude about doing things better and stronger," he said. "We won't have another break like this. We'll have a couple of smaller ones when we don't play mid-week games or whatever, but this is the best opportunity."

The Rebels returned to practice Tuesday night at the Thomas & Mack Center for the first time since Friday's ugly 67-56 loss to Southern Cal in the championship game of the inaugural Diamond Head Classic.

UNLV had a tough time combatting USC's bigger front line and couldn't impose its will on defense in trying to get in the head of Trojans point guard Mike Gerrity. The fifth-year senior carved up UNLV with his steady hand and ability to control the game's tempo for the second time in his collegiate career.

Now, the Rebels are in the middle of an 11-day layoff between games.

Upon returning from Honolulu, Californians such as Justin Hawkins and Matt Shaw headed home for belated Christmas celebrations with their families. Some players stayed in town to relax, including Derrick Jasper, who said he was so disappointed with both his and the team's performance against the Trojans that he refused to watch sports for a few days in an effort to clear his head.

Tuesday's practice, with everyone back in town on time, provided a quick return to reality.

The coaching staff told the scout team to be more physical with the regulars overall, and that clearly was reflected on a cool night inside of the Mack. Nothing came easy for UNLV's rotation players while running offensive sets.

Kruger exemplified toughness himself Tuesday, perching on the scorer's table during practice just hours after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and moving around with the aid of crutches.

"It's hard to simulate the USC size in practice, but still, we can get the other guys as physical as they can be," Kruger said.

Added Shaw: "Today, it was pretty physical. We're pretty sure it'll only get tougher from here on out to get ready for the more physical teams."

There will be no easing back into game action next week, as Mountain West Conference play welcomes UNLV with what will more than likely be its two toughest games on the league slate ̵ at 13-1 BYU on Wednesday and at 13-1 New Mexico on Saturday. Both will present vicious road atmospheres for the 12-2 Rebels, and both will probably carry Top 25 rankings into the showdowns.

It's certainly not a now-or-never type of deal with the Rebels developing a tougher mentality during this prime break in the middle of a long season. But, as Kruger said, there's no better time than now.

Kruger and three of his players Tuesday unanimously agreed that, more than anything, that was the biggest lesson learned on the trip to Hawaii, and probably the most important from the entire non-conference season.

After blistering past SMU, 67-53, and host Hawaii, 77-53, UNLV was, for the second time this season, thrown off kilter by a bigger, stronger opponent who made a point of initiating the contact. The first eye-opener was Dec. 12 in a 95-80 loss to Kansas State.

"We've got to get tougher, man," Shaw said. "I felt like we got handled a little bit by USC. We know we have to be tougher against teams that are more physical. We can't just expect them to have a bad game. Like coach said earlier, we have to make them have a bad game, improve our toughness overall, mentally and physically."

When asked which group was the toughest he'd ever coached, four came to Kruger's mind. They were his most successful squads at each of his last four stops in the Division-I ranks.

"The (2007) Sweet 16 team here was a real physical group," he said. "The 1988 team at Kansas State was a real physical group, a tough group. The Big Ten championship group (at Illinois in 1998) was a tough, hard-nosed group. The Final Four group (at Florida in 1994) was tough mentally. Typically, better teams are tougher.

"They develop to some degrees. It certainly helps when it's built in with the bodies, but the Sweet 16 team here, you take Joel (Anthony), Gaston (Essengue), Wendell (White), Mike Umeh, those were big bodies, those were strong kids. It's a better starting point than when they're not."

Even though UNLV's current roster isn't nearly as bulky or brawny across the board as the team which advanced to the Sweet 16 in St. Louis three years ago, it doesn't mean this year's group can't go further.

What this year's team lacks in size and natural physical intimidation it makes up for with excelled athleticism at nearly every position. That's what makes this team's potential so intriguing if it can develop a consistent mean streak.

Kruger said that the ones who will lead the effort on the floor in bringing out that inner beast are those who have the potential to be the most imposing enforcers.

"Generally the stronger kids are more likely to lead that," he said. "When you look on the perimeter, Tre'Von (Willis) has a strong frame, he can give us some of that, Derrick can give us some of that, Anthony (Marshall) can give us some of that. On the interior, all of those guys can give us a little bit of that. As a group, as much as toughness, we have to execute with even greater purpose to overcome some of that."

Despite not playing in a game this week, UNLV has no days off from practice before heading to Provo for next Wednesday's contest.

And if the Rebels don't capitalize on the opportunity at hand to find their inner nastiness, discovering it will only get tougher as time passes.

"It better be developed," Willis said. "As a group, a light better turn on sooner or later. The sooner the better. We've got to let each other know and keep telling each other how tough we have to be to accomplish what we want to."

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