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Graney: Kevin Kruger’s first step — A lively first practice

Kevin Kruger wants UNLV basketball to again enjoy national relevance.

He knew it. Lived it. Heck, he was a major reason for it.

But that Sweet 16 run in 2007 for which he was the point guard seems a lifetime ago.

His role has changed: Star player to head coach.

“I want to be here the rest of my life,” Kruger said. “Obviously, if we don’t bring things back, we won’t be. The first step is getting a group that the town appreciates and wants to root for.”

He oversaw his first official practice Wednesday — minus summer and fall workouts — and rare was the familiar face running up and down the Mendenhall Center courts.

Kruger’s initial team will include nine transfers and three returning scholarship players. There are newcomers from previous stops such as Texas and Hawaii and West Virginia and Oklahoma and so on.

Such is college basketball in 2021. You recruit on a one-year basis and then re-evaluate your roster once the portal again swells with thousands of names. You can’t think beyond a current season. Things change too fast.

Energy and focus

It was the first day. If you’re not playing with highest level of focus and energy, well, unlace the sneakers and hit the road.

But the liveliness and attention to detail were even more noticeable than you might imagine. Kruger will watch the film and like what he sees. The Rebels got after it.

“I would be lying if I said there weren’t some anxious butterflies, but in a good way,” Kruger said. “It comes from wanting to make sure we get everything in. You can’t do it all in one day, but you want to.”

The Rebels appear more athletic than in recent years. Older in the sense that Kruger won’t need to explain a concept more than once and not have it understood.

Kids who have been through the grind elsewhere, specifically at a Power Five level, have a much better grasp on what it takes to win. And what it takes to avoid losing streaks.

Bryce Hamilton is now a senior and remains one of the toughest players to guard in the Mountain West. He just needs to prove he can defend someone at the other end. But he looked terrific.

It’s impossible to predict where a side with so much turnover might settle in the conference standings. A fair judgment right now would place the Rebels among the top five teams, with the understanding they could travel either way on the ladder.

UNLV hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2013 and, brother, that’s viewed as an eternity in these parts. But while having an intimate connection to a program doesn’t guarantee success, it can afford you a small but critical sense of passion.

Nobody will work harder than Kruger. Nobody wants this more.

“The city wants it, the alumni want it,” he said. “Pick a cliche — get better every day, one percent better, whatever it might be. We feel today was a win and told the guys to do whatever they need to have another one tomorrow.”

Father knows best

Standing in the back of the Mendenhall Center — perhaps trying to remain inconspicuous in a town of which he has little chance — was another coach.

“There is a lot of energy and enthusiasm with this group,” he said. “The key is to make progress each day. I know he likes this group a lot. That’s a good combination. It takes time for a coach in his first year. He understands that. We’re excited for him.”

Said the father and former Rebels coach Lon Kruger.

If this was one of finest college coaches in history passing the proverbial UNLV torch years later, Kevin Kruger couldn’t ask for a better beginning.

But now it’s time to work. This program isn’t coming back solely on name recognition.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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