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Graney: Now healthy, UNLV basketball peaking at right time

It was a few days during fall practice when Kevin Kruger saw what his UNLV basketball team might become with a full roster. The first-year coach is just now noticing it again.

This is as healthy as the Rebels have been all season, meaning it’s not a coincidence they have won three straight.

It’s a team that many believe is capable of winning the Mountain West tournament a few weeks from now and securing the league’s automatic NCAA Tournament berth. One that could actually steal a bid.

Hold your high-tops. That’s some really long 3 pointers away.

But as the Rebels prepare to welcome first-place Boise State to the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday night, this part can’t be debated: Kruger’s team is competing at its highest level this season. There isn’t a conference opponent that should frighten the Rebels. Not one they can’t beat on a given day.

Seeing progress

“We’re getting to see the progress as these guys jell together now that we’re more and more healthy,” Kruger said. “The biggest question was, ‘Would we have enough time shuffling guys around with the injuries?’ But these guys never balked at anything we asked of them. They just did it. Whatever was needed to win games.”

So as players such as forwards Victor Iwuakor and Donovan Williams mended, and as UNLV began consistently defending with a purpose, a switch was flipped.

The Rebels have twice blown out preseason favorite Colorado State and just completed a season sweep of UNR. The rest of the schedule is daunting — home games against Boise State and second-place Wyoming and a game at New Mexico — but it’s tough to see the Rebels falling past fifth place. They were picked seventh in the preseason.

This also has helped: All those transfers grew into and accepted their roles. It wasn’t always a smooth transition. Took time.

Kruger welcomed 10 new faces, and many were departing programs in search of more minutes, more shots, more of everything.

A case study of such: Royce Hamm Jr.

The senior forward spent four years at Texas and never averaged more than 2.7 points and 12.4 minutes. He was a nearly forgotten reserve at best throughout a majority of 90 games.

But in UNLV he has discovered opportunity, having started all 28 games while averaging 8.3 points, 9.5 rebounds and supplying 24 blocks.

“It wasn’t easy at first,” Hamm said. “Bigger role, bigger minutes, more responsibilities and being a part of the culture, more of a leader. You go from not playing much at all to playing a lot. It takes awhile to find your rhythm, your feel, knowing what shots to take.

“You can do all of it at practice, but you really don’t know how things are going to be until you’re in a game.”

It’s another example of how well a coaching job Kruger has done.

Sturdy wheels

He wondered what were fair expectations for those receiving such expanded roles, how much should be demanded of them.

He knew most from their high school playing days, knew they worked hard and were respected as good teammates and had come to practice each day intent on improving. But that doesn’t mean squat when trying to gauge how it will translate to results. Ten. New. Faces.

“Most of them weren’t really asked to do a lot at their previous school other than go into a game for a few minutes and play really hard,” Kruger said. “But while there was a lot of talk about what sort of (production) we might see here, they’ve exceeded those expectations.

“But you know how it goes. If we struggle (Saturday), it will be that the wheels are falling off.”

They seem pretty sturdy right now.

Good health and the experience of a long season will do that.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. 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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