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Gordon: Defense defines UNLV as basketball practice begins

The customary squeak of basketball shoes on hardwood flooring reverberated throughout the Thomas &Mack Center, a Monday morning byproduct of and soundtrack to a whole bunch of defensive slides.

Afternoons are for offense, UNLV basketball coach Kevin Kruger says. Mornings for defense.

“When you defend, you always have a chance. And that’s all you really want in life is a chance,” said senior guard Elijah Harkless, formerly of Oklahoma. “When we’re playing defense and defense creates offense, it makes it easy. Everybody’s happy at that point. I think that’s going to be our biggest thing.”

Defense defined the first practice of the preseason — and will likely determine what exactly the 2022-23 Rebels are capable of during the second season of Kruger’s head coaching tenure. He retooled this year’s team in the transfer portal, adding several veteran, versatile defenders, hoping a few can thrive with expanded roles offensively.

Those roles remain unclear at this point amid the departures of leading scorers Bryce Hamilton and Donovan Williams.

But this much is obvious: the Rebels are determined to defend at a different level this season.

“The encouraging part about today is as things went on, they grasped it more and they got better as it went on,” Kruger said. “If they’re going to really grab it by the horns, make it their own, talk to each other and make it work, I don’t think we can ask for much more than that.”

Size and experience

The Rebels ranked 123rd last season in defensive efficiency, rating roughly in the top 35 percent nationally in fewest points allowed per possession. The top ranking belonged to Mountain West compadre San Diego State.

Last year’s Rebels were bullied twice by a bigger, stronger, more mature group of Aztecs. This year’s group shouldn’t be.

In rounding out the roster, Kruger recruited long, sturdy wings like fifth-year senior Luis Rodriguez (Ole Miss), fifth-year senior Elijah Parquet (Colorado) and sophomore Shane Nowell (Arizona). Third-year big men Isaiah Cottrell (West Virginia) and Karl Jones (Los Angeles Southwest College) fortify the interior. Harkless can defend smaller and bigger guards.

Returners like sophomore guard Keshon Gilbert and senior Victor Iwuakor are also defensive standouts. Senior big man David Muoka improved as a rim protector toward the end of the 2021-22 season.

Gilbert was the only freshman on the team last season. Keyshawn Hall, a bruising 6-foot-7 ball-handler, is the only freshman on a team that features 10 players with at least three years experience.

The rotation could feature seven players between 6-foot-3 and 6-7, allowing for flexibility in containing the conference’s top guards and wings.

“They can sit down, guard their man by themselves,” said senior point guard Jordan McCabe, one of four returners to UNLV’s rotation. “As soon as you start rotating out, even if you’re in the perfect spot, the level of basketball we play, it gets difficult as you’ve got to shift more and more during a possession.”

‘Different level of confidence’

McCabe was playfully relieved to learn the Rebels would indeed work on their offense during the afternoon portions of practice. That after another arduous set of shell drills designed to refine the nuances of team defense.

There’s still six weeks until the Nov. 7 opener against Southern. Plenty of time to straighten out the scoring.

“There’s a different level of confidence when you know your guys are going to do well defensively or hang your head defensively — especially on the road, it just gives you a little bit better feeling as a coach,” Kruger said. “The group we were able to put together in the offseason kind of shades more toward that.”

The way they practiced does, too.

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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