Since 2000, UNLV has danced in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament six times. Four of those trips were under the aegis of former head coach Lon Kruger.
Fans can hope it’s a family business now, as newly minted Runnin’ Rebels head coach Kevin Kruger takes over the program he played for in the 2006-07 season, when he helped lead his father’s squad to the Sweet 16 as point guard.
“UNLV basketball to me — it was the best experience of my life. Vegas, it’s the best city in the world. There’s just nothing bad that I can remember,” said the younger Kruger of his season playing here. “The NCAA tournament is so special and it’s what we’ve got to get back to. We’ve just got to get back to hearing our name on Selection Sunday. When you combine that with Vegas and the history of Runnin’ Rebel basketball, when you actually see the people at the airport sending you off on a road trip, you can really feel it at that point. It’s a whole different level.”
It’s a clear-cut goal for the new coach, who knows well of what he speaks.
Kruger, 37, was named the 17th head coach in program history on March 21. He takes over for T.J. Otzelberger, who decamped for Iowa State University in March. Otzelberger had previously served as an assistant there.
Kruger worked under Otzelberger as an assistant for two seasons, and prior to his return to UNLV spent three seasons as an assistant under his father at the University of Oklahoma and two as an assistant at Northern Arizona.
This becomes his first head coaching job, but growing up in a coaching household, basketball is all he’s ever known. Since 1982, the year before Kevin was born, Lon Kruger has led six different collegiate programs as well as the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks.
“Me and my sister, we were involved in sports from the first day that I have any memory of,” Kevin said. “We were trying to go from our practices to his games and make sure we can go watch him and support him. Everything we did revolved around sports. I don’t know any different.”
Days after his son landed his first head coaching job, the senior Kruger announced his retirement from coaching. He had just led the Oklahoma Sooners to the second round of the tournament where they lost to unbeaten Gonzaga.
He’s now returning to Las Vegas to be a grandfather to Cameron, daughter of Kevin and wife Allison, but also to be a mentor to his son.
“I know he’ll be a huge supporter of UNLV basketball, and probably all things UNLV because it holds a special place in his and my mom’s hearts,” Kevin Kruger said. “He’s not going to really want to try to help with the X’s and O’s of basketball, but what he sees himself doing more is helping me with what he would have done differently at the same stage in his career.”
Kevin was the first player to take advantage of the NCAA’s then-new graduate transfer rule. He had one year of eligibility left after graduating from Arizona State, and spent that final season with UNLV. Afterward, he played for various European teams and squads in China and Mexico, as well as with teams in the NBA’s developmental G League. That playing experience gives him perspective as he builds out his own vision of the future for the Rebels.
Kruger takes over a Rebels program that has gone 20-16 in the Mountain West Conference and 29-30 over the past two years. The team has not reached the NCAA tournament since the 2012-13 season, under coach Dave Rice.
Slowed by this most unusual of seasons, the secret to getting back to the tournament, Kruger said, will be in putting together a team not only with one eye on talent and one on chemistry.
“[Otzelberger] did an unbelievable job of communicating with the players,” Kruger said. “That’s something I want to adopt. We want to just go out there and look like we’re having fun playing.
“Last year with COVID, we just didn’t seem to quite have that joy and that youthful energy and excitement when playing. We want to get back to just having fun, competing. If we can do that, and we can make that one of the cornerstones of our program I think the wins will follow.”
For the past two seasons as an assistant, Kruger was able to draw on his experience of suiting up for the Rebels to relate to current players and share with them what it was like to compete for college basketball’s biggest prize as a Rebel.
That experience was his way back here. The memories of 2006-07 are what ultimately led Kruger to want to take his previous position as assistant coach entering the 2019-20 season.
“This was where I had an opportunity to carve out my own area of life in the basketball world and put my own handprint on something where the first line doesn’t read ‘son of Lon Kruger.’ It’s Runnin’ Rebel. Former Runnin’ Rebel point guard Kevin Kruger,” he said. “There is an element of pride in that.”
From player to assistant to coach, now Kruger has the opportunity to make the program his own. It’s time to have some fun.