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Arena: Thomas & Mack Center
School Name: University of Nevada, Las Vegas
UNLV basketball fans can only hope that Lon Kruger's track record for improving programs in his second year at the helm remains intact. The Rebels, picked to finish first in the conference media and coaches preseason poll last season, underachieved in Kruger's first year in Sin City, rallying to finish with an overall 17-14 record and just a 7-7 mark in the Mountain West Conference. UNLV also continued what seems to have become its annual ritual with another early exit from the NIT, despite the fact die team returned three highly touted seniors in All-MWC forward Odartey Blankson and guards Romel Beck and Jerel Blassingame.
Bur midway though Mountain West play, Kruger benched Beck and Blassingame in favor of point guard Ricky Morgan and athletic shooting guard Michael Umeh. The Rebels put together a five-game winning streak and were one of the hottest teams in the league down the stretch, offering hope of better things to come.
The lone rerurnee up front is oft-injured and erratic forward Louis Amundson. The 6'9" senior is capable of big things — he scored 22 points and had 22 boards at Auburn last year — but he averaged just 7.8 points and 7.5 rebounds in 30 starts and was a disaster at the free throw line, connecting on just 28.8 percent of his attempts. Senior Joel Anthony is an athletic, shot-blocking force on defense. Also back is rugged backup forward Dustin Villepigue and reserve swingman Curtis Terry, a capable 3-point shooter who is the younger brother of NBA star Jason Terry.
UNLV's season seemed to turn around when Kruger made the move to start Morgan, a pass-first point guard, and Umeh together in the back-court. Bodi return and figure to vie for all-conference honors.
Morgan, who is also a solid defender and floor leader, hit a Mountain West Tournament record 18-of-19 free throws in UNLV's 70-63 win over Wyoming. Umeh averaged 14.5 points per game the final 11 games of the season and has an NBA-caliber jump shot.
Since Jerry Tarkanian left UNLV in 1992, the Rebels have had far more head coaches (nine) than NCAA appearances (two). However, with three starters being joined by a highly touted recruiting class and Andrew Bogut (Utah) and Danny Granger (New Mexico) no longer standing in their way, this could be the year the Rebels finally snap that streak.
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