Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023 | 2 a.m.
UNLV MEN’S BASKETBALL EARLY SEASON SCHEDULE
• Nov. 8 vs. Southern, 7 p.m.
• Nov. 11 vs. Stetson, 4 p.m.
• Nov. 17 at Pepperdine, 7 p.m.
• Nov. 20 vs. Florida State in Daytona Beach, Fla., for Sunshine Slam, 2:30 p.m.
• Nov. 21 vs. Colorado or Richmond in Daytona Beach, Fla., 1 p.m. or 3:30 p.m.
• Nov. 28 vs. Akron, 7 p.m.
• Home game tickets available at unlvtickets.com, $11-$121
The UNLV men’s basketball team hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2013, but that doesn’t mean the Valley has been devoid of collegiate-level talent all that time.
On the contrary, Las Vegas has produced dozens of star players since that tourney run—All-Americans, Final Four participants and NBA lottery picks alike. They’ve just played for other colleges.
So when Kevin Kruger was remaking his roster in the offseason with the NCAA Tournament as a goal, it made sense for the UNLV head coach to act locally.
First, Kruger convinced Vegas native and former Clark High standout Jalen Hill to transfer back home to UNLV after four productive years at Oklahoma. Then Kruger really put on a recruiting full-court press to land Liberty High superstar D.J. Thomas, who not only committed to join the Scarlet and Gray, but moved up his graduation date a year so he could get to campus early.
Hill and Thomas join returning junior center Isaiah Cottrell—a former 4-star prospect and three-time state champion during his time at Bishop Gorman High—to form a nucleus of local Vegas ballers intent on restoring UNLV to its rightful place in March Madness.
It’s part of Kruger’s plan to use the local pipeline to keep UNLV stocked with blue-chip players.
Heading into his third year as coach, Kruger believes this local class will help inspire the next wave of stars from powerhouse programs like Gorman, Clark and Liberty to consider UNLV.
“You talk about Jalen coming home, you talk about Isaiah coming home, you talk about D.J. staying home, I think what those guys did is they stood up and stuck their chest out that they’re proud to be at UNLV and proud to be in Vegas,” Kruger says. “I think the effect with D.J. and Jalen and Isaiah, it may not be immediate, but we’re going to see it.”
Kruger has made recruiting local high schools a priority since taking the job three years ago. He and his staff are courtside regulars at big games, and they’re putting in work behind the scenes, too.
The Las Vegas Sun surveyed nine local high-school coaches whose programs have produced a combined 20 Division-I college recruits over the past three years. Of those nine, seven coaches said that Kruger and his assistants have attended at least one of their practices or workouts; seven also said they’ve spoken directly with Kruger about recruiting.
That doggedness paid off with Thomas. After leading Liberty to a state championship in 2021-22 and another run to the title game last year, the 6-foot-1 point guard had his choice of premier programs—Gonzaga, Arizona, Houston and UCLA were among his finalists.
UNLV had an inside track, though. His father, Dedan Thomas, played at UNLV from 1991-94, and that local connection was a major reason why D.J. decided to stay home.
Kruger also had a head start with Hill, as he initially recruited the 6-foot-7 forward when he was an assistant coach at Oklahoma. Kruger earned his commitment back then, and when Hill put his name in the transfer portal in the offseason, Kruger knew his toughness and defensive versatility would be crucial to UNLV’s tournament hopes.
Hill says that prior relationship made it easier for him to return to Las Vegas.
“At the end of the day, you want to go to a coaching staff that you trust,” Hill says. “That’s how I felt coming back home with Kev.”
That transferring-home model could become a blueprint for UNLV. Because Las Vegas produces so many Division-I basketball players, it makes sense for Kruger to blanket the local high schools.
Even if he doesn’t get a commitment the first time around, he’s nicely positioned to resume a dialogue with those players if they enter the transfer portal a year or two later.
“The advantage is, we’re able to have enough conversations, especially face to face, that there is no confusion,” Kruger says. “Sometimes guys decide they want to try somewhere else and go out of town. Because we have that relationship, if the portal does become an option at some point, we have that foundation.”
With the Vegas trio leading the way this season, UNLV expects to be included when tournament brackets are revealed in March.
The way Hill sees it, Las Vegas’ team is building a self-sustaining cycle of success.
“If you’re winning, the city is going to love you,” Hill said. “This is a basketball town and everybody knows it. I think now, especially with the program coming up and getting better, I believe we’re going to have a great year and make the tournament. That will make it easier for guys to stay home.”
The UNLV women’s basketball team is already reaping the benefits of staying local with Desert Oasis High graduate Desi-Rae Young, a three-time All Mountain West Conference team selection.
Young goes into her senior year looking to extend one of the greatest runs in program history. The Scarlet and Gray has won 24 consecutive Mountain West games, including back-to-back league championships (regular season and tournament). They’ve got the best coach in the conference in Lindy La Rocque, who says the game plan this season is simple.
The 6-foot-2 Young had a monster campaign last year with averages of 17.9 points per game and 10.1 rebounds, so there’s no reason for UNLV to change its approach.
“We have Desi on the block,” La Rocque says. “She’s been our rock. We’re going to rely on that. We’re not totally changing our style of play. We’re going to stick to what has really worked.”
That’s been good enough to get UNLV to two straight NCAA Tournaments. Now the goal is to win a game in the “Big Dance,” with Young leading the way and senior forward Nneka Obiazor, junior guard Kiara Jackson and freshman guard Amarachi Kimpson providing support.
But don’t expect anything more than light tinkering from La Rocque, as Young continues to be the focal point.
“We’re not going to fix anything that’s not broken,” La Rocque says.
The Lady Rebels start the season on the road November 6 at Loyola Marymount before returning home for a three-game home stand against College of Charleston (November 10), Utah Tech (November 14) and New Hampshire (November 18).
This story originally appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.