Gordon: Defense defines UNLV as basketball practice begins

The usual squeak of basketball shoes on the hardwood floor echoed throughout the Thomas & Mack Center, a byproduct of Monday mornings and the soundtrack to a whole bunch of defensive slides.

Afternoons are all about offense, UNLV basketball coach Kevin Kruger said. Defense morning.

“When you’re defending, you always have a chance. And that’s all you really want in life is a chance,” senior guard Elijah Harkless, formerly of Oklahoma, said. “When we play in defense and the defense creates the attack, it makes things easier. Everyone is happy at that moment. I think that’s going to be our biggest thing.”

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

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

But it’s already evident: the Rebels are determined to defend at a different level this season.

“The encouraging part of today is that as things went along, they understood it better and they got better as they went along,” Kruger said. “If they really want to 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, roughly ranking in the top 35 percent nationally in fewest points allowed per possession. The highest ranking belonged to Mountain West compadre San Diego State.

Last year, the rebels were intimidated twice by a larger, stronger and more mature group of Aztecs. This year’s group shouldn’t be.

Rounding out the roster, Kruger recruited long, stout wings like fifth-year senior Luis Rodriguez (Ole Miss), Elijah Parquet (Colorado) and Shane Nowell (Arizona). Isaiah Cottrell (West Virginia) and Karl Jones (Los Angeles Southwest College) fortify the interior. Harkless can defend both smaller and larger guards.

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

Gilbert was the team’s only rookie last season. Keyshawn Hall, a 6-foot-7 ball-handling winger, is the only freshman on a 10-player squad with at least three years of experience.

The rotation could feature seven players between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-7, allowing flexibility to contain the conference’s best guards and wings.

“They can sit down, guard their man on their own,” said lead point guard Jordan McCabe, one of four returnings in UNLV’s rotation. “As soon as you start spinning, even if you’re in the right spot, the level of basketball we play, it becomes difficult because you have to move more and more during a possession.”

“Different Level of Trust”

McCabe was happily relieved to learn that the Rebels would indeed be working on their offense during the afternoon practice games. This after another arduous round of shell drills designed to hone the nuances of team defense.

There are still six weeks until the November 7 opener against Southern. Plenty of time to straighten the score.

“There’s a different level of confidence when you know your guys are going to do well defensively or hang their heads defensively – especially on the road, it just gives you a bit more feel as a coach,” Kruger said. . “The squad we’ve been able to build in the offseason is leaning more towards that.”

The way they practiced too.

Contact Sam Gordon at [email protected] Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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