Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP
Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023 | 7:07 p.m.
Kevin Kruger is officially open to ideas.
After Fresno State became the fourth straight team to torch UNLV’s defense inside and out, the second-year head coach stood outside the visiting locker room at the Save Mart Center and said changes will have to be made.
“We’ve got to adjust some things,” Kruger said.
It had to be difficult for Kruger to come to that conclusion. He spent the entire offseason loading up on defensive-minded veterans who fit his dream style of play — an aggressive, attack-minded unit that would harass opponents into bushels of turnovers — and that blueprint turned out to be a resounding success over the first half of the season.
But Fresno State’s 76-63 knockout victory made it abundantly clear that Mountain West opponents are on a different level than the flotsam and jetsam that populated the non-conference schedule. Even lowly Fresno State, which came into Saturday’s contest with one of the worst-ranked offenses in the country, was more than capable of protecting the ball, staying one step ahead of UNLV’s traps and finding the open man.
The results were sobering, as the Bulldogs shot 54.3% from the field and made 9-of-19 from beyond the arc to hand UNLV its fourth straight loss.
After overwhelming non-conference opponents and posting a sparkling 11-1 record over the season’s first two months, UNLV is now 1-6 in the Mountain West. That ties the Scarlet and Gray with Wyoming for last place in the league standings.
During UNLV’s four-game losing streak, all four opponents have shot better than 50% from the field and 40% from 3-point range.
Maybe more so than the X’s and O’s adjustments that are sure to come, Kruger wants to see his team play with the kind of passion and intensity that drove them to open the season by winning their first 10 games.
“We’ve got to get that edge back again,” he said. “It’s hard to do when you’re struggling. It’s hard to find that edge and that chip.”
Fresno State guard Isaiah Hill worked the UNLV defense masterfully, pouring in a game-high 28 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Hill also distributed five assists, and UNLV’s pressure defense only managed to wring two turnovers out of him in 39 minutes of court time.
Fresno State shot 53.6% in the first half and took a 37-33 lead into the locker room. The second half was more of the same, as the Bulldogs drained 55.6% and never saw their advantage dip lower than three points.
Kruger has already started tinkering. For the second straight game, he pulled senior center David Muoka from the starting lineup and gave the lion’s share of playing time to senior big man Victor Iwuakor. UNLV also got some reinforcements on Saturday, as senior guard Eli Parquet — who Kruger calls the team’s best defender — returned from a knee injury suffered on Dec. 10.
None of it made a difference. Fresno’s scoring rate of 1.27 points per possession was a season high.
Parquet was the lone positive for the Scarlet and Gray. He logged 31 minutes off the bench and finished with four points, one steal and a block, and after the game he said that aside from some normal soreness, he felt good physically.
Now he’s got to help his squad reacquire its taste for defense.
“We just need to find our swagger and get us going again,” Parquet said. “We’ve got to come together. Especially at times like this, we can’t fall apart. We’ve got to come together and keep going. It starts in practice.”
Senior guard E.J. Harkless led UNLV with 15 points, but needed more than a dozen shots to get there (3-of-13). Sophomore Keshon Gilbert (11 points) and freshman Keyshawn Hall (10 points) were the only other players in double figures.
What might Kruger and his staff try next to sort out the defense? He didn’t offer specifics, only saying that it will take a team effort to break the losing streak.
“This is going to be a collective effort. Coaches, players, we’re going to get through it. We’re going to be fine. We’re going to get better. We’re going to continue to work.”
UNLV had better figure it out fast. The team returns home to host Wyoming on Tuesday in a game that will leave the loser alone in last place.