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Hoops notebook: Kruger takes NASCAR role in rare free weekend

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UNLV head coach Lon Kruger argues a call as UNLV takes on Utah Wednesday night at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City. Utah defeated UNLV 70-60 making the series even on the season.

Gentlemen, start your fast break … er, your full-court trap … er, your constantly switching defense.

Actually, UNLV basketball coach Lon Kruger foresees no such tongue twisters or gaffes as he prepares to start the Sam’s Town 300 today at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Kruger was tabbed as the grand marshal of the NASCAR Nationwide Series race, which nicely coincides with an off weekend for the Rebels.

They lost at Utah on Wednesday and don’t play again until Air Force visits the Thomas & Mack Center, in UNLV’s final regular-season home game, next Wednesday.

“We’re not playing Saturday night,” Kruger said after practice Friday morning, “so I’ll go do something different and meet some different people.”

UNLV won at least one game in a second consecutive NCAA tournament last spring for the first time in 17 years, which has drawn a hefty amount of recognition.

Kruger has responded to the attention, posing for the cover of tens of thousands of area phone books in the summer and getting the word out on UNLV basketball.

The “grand marshal” title sounded a bit daunting to Kruger, but he thinks his duties – as the race’s starter – will be limited.

“I think there’s only one I know of,” he said with a smile. “I’ll just tell them to start their engines. That’s all I know at this point.”

The 80/20 rule

For as long as Kruger has coached, all 23 collegiate seasons, he has tried to come close to an 80/20 rule in practice.

That is, 80 percent positive reinforcement and 20 percent constructive criticism.

That was evident in Friday morning’s upbeat session, as UNLV (20-8, 8-6 in the Mountain West Conference) has slipped into the middle of the pack of its league by losing four of its past seven games.

Eric Musselman, a former NBA boss who served as an assistant under Kruger with the Atlanta Hawks, and other coaches have taken note of Kruger’s rule.

“Generally, that’s a good idea,” Kruger said. “Confidence, I think, is as significant as anything in performance. People who play with confidence, who perform with confidence, feel good about what they’re doing.

“I think it goes in line with that. It’s hard for people to be confident if you’re tearing them down all the time. So we’re just trying to build them up to promote confidence, to promote enthusiasm. It all ties together.”

It isn’t an especially important tack after a defeat, or during a tough season, Kruger said. What’s important is delivering messages that are received differently by different players.

“Some individuals may need to get after it a little harder, in a constructive way,” Kruger said. “Even when you’re getting after people, that’s not a negative. That can be constructive when it’s intended the right way.”

Kruger covers his 80/20 rule in Lesson 12 of his first book, “The Xs and Os of Success,” which was released last summer.

Not watching 'Animal House'

On the hour-long flight from Salt Lake City, Kruger opened his computer, played a disc of the loss to the Utes and jotted on a checklist of notes.

It helped that assistant coach Lew Hill dominated the sports section of the single USA Today that he shared with Kruger.

It’s all a part of staying ahead of the curve. If Kruger didn’t start that list on the plane, he’d have started it in the office upon landing in Las Vegas.

“We’re charting every play, every possession – offensively and defensively,” Kruger said. “We’re not only learning coming out of that game but for the next time we play Utah.

“All those notes are for the next few days, preparing for Air Force, and long range, if we go up against Utah again.”

To dictate or not to dictate

What glared out at Kruger in reviewing Wednesday’s game was how vastly different his team played defense during its run in the second half to when it capitulated to the Utes in the final six minutes of the first half.

When UNLV whittled that 15-point deficit to 2, it was “dictating.” That’s a word Kruger uses regularly.

“That’s what we talk about, playing each possession as if it’s the most significant possession of a ball game,” he said. “We haven’t done a good job of that with this group.

“Last year’s group, by contrast, was great at that. This year’s group has been very inconsistent because of that. We just haven’t approached it quite the same way.”

Has his team’s inconsistencies often frustrated him this season?

“You’re always frustrated when you don’t play consistently at your highest level,” Kruger said. “You’re frustrated, to some degree, sometimes, more than others.

“This group’s been so up and down, in terms related to what they can do. Most teams are. This group, quite frankly, has been average … like most teams.”

Average, to most teams, is 16-12 or 16-13. That the Rebels are 20-8 is a credit to the players.

And even though Kruger wouldn’t say it, to the coaches, too.

“I don’t know that we fully understand that, with just a little better performance relative to consistency, 20-8 could go to 24-4 pretty easily, when you look at the games we’ve lost,” he said.

“That’s the thing I don’t know that we’ve fully had a grasp of or fully been able to get their attention about … that’s our goal and our objective and our function.”

Kind of amazing

Kruger’s message to his players early Friday morning, before practice, was the above in a nutshell.

Understanding what they did and how they played to cut that big deficit to two points, as opposed to how the game got away from them at the end of the first half.

Kruger said he and his staff are emphasizing that there still is a lot of basketball left, with two regular-season games and the Mountain West tournament at the Mack.

“Every team really is still in control of their destiny, as it relates to postseason opportunity,” Kruger said. “Whether that’s an at-large possibility or a conference tournament championship, all that’s still there.

“Given the number of times we’ve passed on taking advantage of some opportunities, it’s kind of amazing that it is still there. But it is. That’s the thing.”

No senior starting quintet

Kruger said he will not start his five seniors – Wink Adams, René Rougeau, Joe Darger, Mo Rutledge and Rob Ketchum – on Wednesday against the Falcons.

Sure, it’s Senior Night. Fans are being asked to wear white, and a few thousand white T-shirts will be handed out to fans on a first-come basis.

But Kruger will stick with his current starting five of Adams, Rougeau, Darger, sophomore Tre'Von Willis and freshman Oscar Bellfield.

Rutledge has provided a spark off the bench this season. Ketchum, who scored his first collegiate points on a fastbreak layup at Colorado State, is a walk-on and a valued member of the black shirts.

That’s the third unit, of transfers and walk-ons who wear black practice shirts, that pushes Kruger’s first two teams in practice.

Kruger said the attitude and ability of that third team is unique and invaluable.

“This group is strong and physical,” he said. “They can score. There are some veteran guys, and Rob really is a good guy for the black shirts. And Scotty Hoffman, Chace (Stanback), Todd Hanni, Steve Jones and Matt Shaw.

“They’re all strong guys and experienced. The quality and depth of that black-shirt team is probably unusual.”

Kruger has always aimed to have more than 15 players, so a third team could press his first and second units.

“But we’re not always able to do that,” he said. “There are injuries, or whatever. Having three squads, I think, is really ideal.

“They don’t get minutes in a game, but they take a lot of pride doing what they can in that time and competing during that time.”

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