Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Published Friday, April 1, 2011 | 8 p.m.
Updated Saturday, April 2, 2011 | 2:31 a.m.
- Lon Kruger changes course, accepts head coaching position at Oklahoma
- Brewer: Kruger leaving for Oklahoma isn't all that bad
- Jerry Tarkanian: Oklahoma's athletic department has deep pockets
- So, who's the odds-on favorite for Kruger's job?
- A look at Lon Kruger's coaching history at UNLV
- The coaches who have led the Rebels through the decades
A few days ago, Lon Kruger gathered his players following a team workout on the UNLV campus to address some rumors that had been swirling connecting him to job openings around the country.
Some had heard these rumors or read about them, some had not.
"He pretty much said don't believe everything you read," sophomore guard Anthony Marshall said. "We thought we had nothing to worry about, so it's just kind of shocking, but I understand that it's a business."
The business side of college basketball has now left the Rebels players wondering what's next, as Kruger, who just completed his seventh season in Las Vegas, on Friday accepted the vacant position at Oklahoma.
"It'd be different if it was high school basketball, but at the college and pro levels, it's just a business," Marshall added. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't saddened by it. He's a great coach. At the same time, I understand it's a business and it happens a lot."
Marshall was reached on his cell phone, and was in town, but did not show up for the Friday night team meeting at the Thomas & Mack Center, where Kruger addressed five players — Kendall Wallace, Carlos Lopez, Quintrell Thomas, Oscar Bellfield and Reggie Smith. Some others were out of town, while some were here but didn't show up. Kruger called each of his players before flying back to Las Vegas earlier in the day, talking with them or leaving messages before his flight took off.
Kruger met with Oklahoma Athletic Director Joe Castiglione and President David Boren in Houston, accepting a seven-year, $16 million offer, which will double the $1.1 million he was pulling in annually at UNLV. The Sooners will pay UNLV a $500,000 buyout for the two years remaining on Kruger's current deal.
Those who attended the meeting were dealing with mixed emotions.
"Right now, I just feel like everybody's worried about how things are going to go with them individually," sophomore forward Quintrell Thomas said. "When a coach leaves, it directly affects you, because it could be like at Kentucky, where guys were there before. A new coach brings in his own people, and you're worried about your playing time.
"I'm just like everybody else. I'm in wait-and-see mode. I don't know what to do right now. It's a little nerve-racking, because a coach could come in, not like me at all and I won't be playing. I'm towards the end of my college career with only two years left to play."
Thomas redshirted during the 2009-10 season following a transfer from Kansas, and after struggling to find his footing in his first season at UNLV, hit a stride late and became a dependable interior force on both ends of the floor within Kruger's system.
One player in the middle of a similar redshirt stint is Marquette transfer Reggie Smith, who came to UNLV at the start of the spring semester and will be eligible in mid-December with 2.5 years left to play.
"It's very surprising," he said. "It's kind of hard because we weren't expecting it and no one was thinking about it. At the same time, you've got to know it's a business. We're not mad at him or anything; we just wish we'd known what was going on at the time.
"It's kind of stressful, because I'm just getting here, starting to get used to everyone and everything only to have to start over again."
Smith said he will likely stay at UNLV, though whoever the school hires will go in the books as his third coach in the one year that's passed since he graduated from high school.
The top two candidates at this point for the opening appear to be a pair of former UNLV players — Dave Rice and Reggie Theus.
Rice, who played on UNLV's national championship team in 1990, is the associate head coach at BYU. He was previously a UNLV assistant for 11 seasons and is more than ready to take over a program of his own. Not only would his uptempo offensive system perfectly fit with the current group of players at UNLV, but he'd have immediate, built-in local recruiting ties through his brother, Grant, who is the head coach at powerhouse Bishop Gorman.
Theus suited up for the Rebels in the late 1970s under Jerry Tarkanian, and was the head coach at New Mexico State from 2005-07, leading the Aggies to a 41-23 record and one NCAA tournament appearance. He left there to take over the NBA's Sacramento Kings, and is currently an assistant coach with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He's a noted star recruiter, as he was able to lure plenty of top talent from the East Coast to play for him in Las Cruces, N.M.
Whoever gets the job will likely have to re-recruit some of the current prep standouts already committed to UNLV, including the 2013 duo of Findlay Prep's Nigel Williams-Goss and Lincoln County senior Dantley Walker, who will head off on a two-year Mormon mission before arriving on campus.
"I was pretty shocked. I didn't really expect it," said Walker, who heard the news via text message from his father this morning. "I would have loved to play for coach Kruger; he's one of the top reasons I committed. But I've always wanted to be a Rebel, so it'd have to be something drastic to make that not happen."
Williams-Goss received the news in Washington, D.C., on Friday, as the Pilots are there until Sunday after falling to Dwyer (Fla.) High on Thursday in the semifinals of the ESPN Rise National High School Invitational in Bethesda, Md.
"I was shocked. It had never really crossed my mind that coach Kruger would accept another job," said Williams-Goss, one of 2013's top recruits who committed to UNLV in December. "Really, just a lot of confusion right now. It puts me in a tough position as to whether to re-open my recruitment back up. I was just kind of confused and I'm hurt, because I built a good relationship with coach Kruger. Just a lot of emotions going through my mind."
Later Friday night, a YouTube video surfaced of Nigel and his father, Virgil, who moved to Las Vegas before his freshman season at Findlay, discussing their feelings on the situation. Both emphasized that Nigel committed early because of the relationship he'd built with Kruger over three years and said that there will be no rush to either de-commit or decide to stay committed to UNLV.
Incoming freshman forward Grandy Glaze, who is already inked to a national letter of intent, could not be reached, despite several attempts. The same was the case for several players who were out of town, including UCLA transfer Mike Moser and sophomore guard Justin Hawkins.
Another area to watch in the coming weeks will be the statuses of the returning Rebels.
Marshall, regardless of who is hired, said he intends on staying put in his hometown. Expect almost all of his teammates to follow suit.
"I came here for a reason and that was to represent Las Vegas and UNLV, and I'm going to stick to my decision," he said.