Las Vegas Sun

April 22, 2024

Crucial offseason ahead as UNLV aims to end tournament drought

Rebels vs Cowboys

Steve Marcus

UNLV guard D.J. Thomas (11) takes the ball upcourt against Wyoming during the second half of an NCAA basketball game at the Thomas & Mack Center Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024.

After Wednesday’s season-ending loss at Seton Hall in the NIT quarterfinals, the consensus among UNLV players, coaches, and even fans was that 2023-24 was a successful campaign.

The team developed promising underclassmen, got better as the year went along, and earned their first postseason berth in 11 years. An overall record of 21-13 was the best since 2012-13. All of that represented progress for the program. And yet, there was an undercurrent of what could have been.

This UNLV squad was surely talented enough to make the NCAA Tournament. Settling for the NIT was a nice consolation, but as attention turns to the offseason, it is clear that a return to the big dance is the big goal for 2024-25.

Head coach Kevin Kruger said the first task will be helping the outgoing seniors as they look to continue their basketball careers. Then the work begins, as UNLV finds itself one good offseason away from the NCAA Tournament.

“The seniors, they’re our first priority, making sure they’re in a good place professionally in terms of any way we can help them,” Kruger said. “Once we do that, we’ll meet with the rest of the guys and start pinpointing spring workouts and how we want to get better.”

Some of UNLV’s top priorities:

Roster reset

UNLV is losing five seniors to graduation: centers Kalib Boone and Karl Jones, wings Luis Rodriguez and Keylan Boone and guard Justin Webster. The Boone twins and Rodriguez were full-time starters, and Webster started more than half the contests this year, so that’s a lot of production heading out the door.

As of now, UNLV is set to welcome three newcomers in 2024-25. James Evans is a 6-foot-5 wing from California, Pape N’Diaye is a 7-footer from Trinity International, and Jeremiah Cherry is a 6-foot-11 juco big man. Evans and N’Diaye are rated as 3-star prospects, while Cherry posted 12.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game at New Mexico JC.

Add them to the eight players set to return — freshmen D.J. Thomas and Brooklyn Hicks, redshirt freshman Jacob Bannarbie, juniors Rob Whaley, Jackie Johnson, Isaiah Cottrell and Shane Nowell and senior Jalen Hill, and that’s 11 of 13 roster spots accounted for. That leaves two openings right now, but that number is likely to increase in the coming weeks as current players look to test the transfer portal.

Doing some quick back-of-envelope math, it seems likely Kruger will be bringing in two players from the portal, and realistically more like three or four.

Keep D.J. Thomas

This really should be the top entry on this list, because UNLV’s biggest priority by far is retaining D.J. Thomas.

As a true freshman, Thomas led UNLV in scoring and assists while playing more minutes than anyone else. Despite the huge workload, Thomas never seemed to tire or go through the normal freshman ups and downs over the course of the season. He should enter 2024-25 as a favorite for Mountain West Player of the Year.

That’s if he stays at UNLV, of course.

There’s no smoke about Thomas leaving as of right now. In fact, he’s got reasons to stick around. His family obviously has deep ties to Las Vegas, as his father, Dedan Thomas, played at UNLV, and he has a lucrative NIL deal that paid him six figures this year.

After UNLV lost in the Mountain West tournament, Thomas responded to a question about his status by saying he’s coming back to UNLV. Beyond that, in recent weeks he and Kruger have both been dropping references to Thomas being at UNLV next year. That’s usually a good sign.

But with the current portal landscape, retaining a player is never a sure thing. For now, lean toward Thomas returning and leading UNLV in 2024-25.

Portal power

When Kruger and his staff dive into the transfer market, they will find a lot of talent waiting to be courted. The portal has been open for two weeks and already hundreds of players have entered, and UNLV has a strong track record as a landing spot for restless ballers.

In Kruger’s three years at the helm, the staff’s sweet spot has been finding underutilized players and post-hype prospects from power-conference programs, dropping them down a level, giving them expanded roles and watching them flourish against Mountain West competition. That blueprint has consistently produced short-term gems like Royce Hamm, Donovan Williams, E.J. Harkless, Luis Rodriguez and the Boone twins.

The advantage UNLV has this year — again, if D.J. Thomas returns — is that those incoming veterans will be supplementing the team’s best player, not replacing him. Instead of building an entire roster from zero, as Kruger has done three times, the staff will be looking to add pieces around Thomas, Whaley and Hill.

Kruger is good at the portal. He has added multiple double-digit scorers via transfer every year since becoming head coach in 2021, most of whom had never put up those kinds of numbers before; that’s attractive to the next crop of players looking for a better opportunity. UNLV also has a nice NIL fund, which is quickly becoming the driving factor in recruiting.

Expect Kruger and his staff to hit the portal hard and sign at least two starter-caliber transfers.

Style guide

What is UNLV’s offense going to look like next year? It’s hard to say at this point, but it could be quite different based on personnel.

Due to the skill sets of Kalib Boone and Rob Whaley, the Scarlet and Gray became a heavy post-up offense in 2023-24. They spent most possessions trying to work the ball inside for straight post-ups, and while Boone and Whaley were generally efficient on the low block, it’s not how most offenses are run these days.

It’s especially not how things are done when you’ve got a point guard like Thomas running the show. An offense built around Thomas would likely feature a lot of ball screens and a lot of pick-and-rolls, with the goal of getting Thomas downhill to either score, throw lobs or spray the ball out to 3-point shooters.

UNLV didn’t do much of that at all this season. Boone and Whaley were not utilized in pick-and-roll actions, and neither provided a pick-and-pop option, either. All the entry passes and back-to-the-basket moves resulted in a slow pace (No. 292 in KenPom’s adjusted tempo) and some close calls for the 3-point streak. That style is limiting what Thomas can do with the ball in his hands.

What the coaching staff will have to iron out in the offseason is the type of offense they want to be. Boone is graduating, while Whaley is returning; does Kruger want to add another back-to-the basket center to replace Boone and stick with the double-big, bully ball gameplan, or is he ready to hand the keys to Thomas and give him full control of the playbook?

If Kruger goes into the portal and targets big men capable of stretching the floor, it could signal a change in approach, and more control for Thomas in 2024-25.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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