"UNLV didn't do much to change [its image] with its next four or five hires," Kevin Kruger said yesterday after leading the Rebels to a 74-68 upset of Wisconsin and a trip to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament.
Things changed when UNLV hired Lon Kruger, Kevin's father and the kind of guy you'd normally see in Vegas around 9 p.m., trying to play blackjack after watching the how-to video up in his hotel room. Having Kruger take over at UNLV is like hiring Dudley Do-Right as police commissioner of Gomorrah.
"He's a straight arrow," Kevin Kruger said. "You hire a guy like him and he's going to bring good people in. You know what you're going to get with him, guys who go to class and play basketball."
Thing is, it works. Las Vegas has worked hard to change its image, adding attractions for families and marketing itself as a place for naughty but harmless fun, and Kruger's UNLV fits right in with that.
That wouldn't matter much if Kruger didn't win. That's also something you get with Kruger. He won at Kansas State and at Florida and at Illinois. He didn't win when he jumped to the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, which is why he was available when UNLV was looking for a coach three years ago.
Now he has coached UNLV's first two NCAA tournament wins since Tark's 1991 Final Four team.
When Lon Kruger's Florida team went to the Final Four in 1994, Kevin was 10 years old. When the Gators lost to Duke, "I cried," Kevin said. But then he was escorted to the Duke locker room by Grant Hill, and had a chance to meet some of the players he'd admired right up until his dad's team was playing them.
When it was time for Kevin to go to college, Lon was in the NBA. So Kevin went to Arizona State and played three seasons. He completed his degree with one year of eligibility left, allowing him to transfer to another school without having to sit out for a season. That rule, which the NCAA rescinded two months ago, allowed Kevin to do the one thing he'd never gotten to do before - play for his dad.
Instead of watching Lon coach, Kevin was on the floor with the ball in his hands when the game was on the line yesterday. After jumping to an early lead, UNLV had fallen behind by five points midway through the second half. It was that point in a typical tournament game when the higher seed kills off the upset hopes by pulling away from the underdog.
Not this time. Kevin Kruger, who had missed 14 of his first 15 shots in this tournament, nailed three three-pointers in a row to turn the game back UNLV's way. He was fouled attempting a fourth, and made all three free throws. Kruger finished with 16 points, seven assists and, maybe most impressively, zero turnovers against Wisconsin's smothering defense.
"I don't ever think I'm going to miss," Kruger said. "That may sound bad, but it's true. If there was only a certain amount of time I'm going to make them, I wanted to make sure to get some [shots] up."
Talking about Kevin's performance puts Lon Kruger in a peculiar spot. If the key to coaching your son is to treat him like the other players, how do you admit it means more to you when he scores?
Answer: Very carefully.
"It probably is" more special, Lon Kruger said. "You try to think of it as: We need baskets. Whether it's Kevin or Michael [Umeh], we don't really care. But if Kevin gets the opportunity and he's not doing it, that hurts a little more. You hurt for him and for his mom. When he does it, there's a little extra special feeling, sure."
For Kevin, this game represented his best hope when he decided to leave Arizona State and play one year for his father.
"Watching a member of your family be happy is one of the greatest feelings in the world," Kevin said. "To be a part of that, it feels really good. UNLV is going to the Sweet 16."
That's his father's UNLV, and his.
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