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A couple of decades ago some Indiana University basketball fans who knew I liked UNLV’s team criticized my choice, saying that the Rebels and then coach Jerry Tarkanian were cheaters, the antithesis of then Indiana University Coach Bobby Knight’s program.
They didn’t know that Knight actually had great respect for Tarkanian and the intensity with which his teams played defense.
And the NCAA’s cheating charges against Tarkanian were basically trumped up accusations for what Knight himself called “nickel and dime stuff,” as the NCAA had a vendetta against Tarkanian for his writing columns early in his career criticizing the college sports governing body’s selective enforcement of its rules.
Tarkanian eventually won a multi-million-dollar settlement from the NCAA for its continued harassment of him.
And when Tark published his autobiography in 2005, it was Knight who wrote the foreword for it.
Knight and Tarkanian are both retired from coaching now. But it might amuse some IU fans to know that UNLV’s current coach, Lon Kruger, runs his program extremely similar to the way Knight ran his—minus the occasional tantrum that Knight became known for.
Whereas Knight was known for giving everyone on his roster a chance to play if they earned it by working hard in practice, most coaches today fawn over their top recruits and wouldn’t think of giving their 11th or 12th man significant minutes in any game.
Knight would also bench players for missing a class or being late for a practice, transgressions that many current coaches tend to overlook.
Following a style similar to Knight’s, though, Kruger last year benched Marcus Lawrence, who was expected to be his starting point guard, for the first few games because Lawrence had missed some games.
He turned to Curtis Terry, who had started his career at UNLV as a walk-on and had been the backup shooting guard the previous season, for his starting point guard.
Terry held the job all season and led the Mountain West Conference in assists. Lawrence was eventually dismissed from the team after being charged with driving while intoxicated.
This year Tre’Von Willis, a highly touted transfer from Memphis, was expected to succeed the graduated Terry at point guard.
But he overslept and missed part of a practice, and freshman Oscar Bellfield has started at the point ever since (Willis did start at shooting guard against Louisville Wednesday in place of injured scoring leader Wink Adams).
Two years ago Beas Hamga, a 7-footer, was the highest ranked recruit Kruger ever signed at UNLV. He was listed as the fifth best high school center and 26th best player overall by one scouting service and was also recruited by IU and Kentucky, among others.
Yet Hamga played only 26 total minutes in the Rebels’ first nine games this season before asking for and being granted his release from the team.
Meanwhile 6-foot-6 small forward Rene Rougeau, who became a starter last year as a junior when he was still a walk-on, is the Rebels’ leading rebounder and most consistent player.
He had team highs of 17 points (on 8 for 9 field-goal shooting), seven rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots in Wednesday’s 56-55 upset win at Louisville.
Yet he would never have been given a chance to play at most top colleges.
Rougeau’s defense is one reason Kruger made him a starter early last season, as Kruger emphasizes that part of the game as much as Knight did.
The Las Vegas Review Journal reported that after seeing one of his high school recruits play last season Kruger sternly told him, “You’re going to have to play defense a lot harder if you expect to play for us next year.”
The emphasis on defense appears to be paying off for Kruger and the Rebels. After beating Arizona and Louisville in the last two weeks they are 12-2 and look ready to reach the NCAA’s sweet 16 for the second time in three years.