OMAHA, Neb. (AP)—This isn’t the same UNLV team that reached the regional semifinals a year ago, won 30 games and captured the imaginations of Runnin’ Rebel fans pining for the glory days of nearly two decades ago.
When eighth-seeded UNLV (26-7) faces Kent State (28-6) on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA Midwest Regional, only one starter will be back from the squad that upset second-seeded Wisconsin in Chicago before getting bounced by Oregon in the third round last year.
Coach Lon Kruger said he likes this team just as much.
“In some ways, personnel-wise, it’s a lot different because different people are playing the big roles this year,” he said. “I think from an attitude standpoint, from an effort standpoint, all the intangibles, there are a lot of similarities.”
There also are similarities between the Rebels and the Golden Flashes. Both are guard-oriented teams that thrive on playing tough defense.
UNLV has held 19 of its last 24 opponents to 65 points or fewer. Thirteen have scored 60 or fewer. That includes Mountain West Conference regular-season champion Brigham Young, which managed 41 points in a January loss to the Rebels.
Kent State has held each of its last five opponents under 60 points and is allowing an average of 51.2 points and 36 percent field goal shooting.
“I think defense is the pride of both programs. And if the score is 1-0, then you’ll know who plays better defense,” Flashes coach Jim Christian said.
This might not be your father’s Rebels—remember the two Final Four teams that topped 100 points 30 times from 1989-91?—but they still like to get up and down the floor.
“We’re definitely trying to bring it back, the glory days,” guard Rene Rougeau said. “People always talk to us about that and how those teams hustled, getting on the ground and stuff. That’s definitely something we try to do. We’re not as flashy as they were, but we definitely like to run and gun.”
Wink Adams, who has started 90 straight games, leads a lineup that features four guards and one forward. Adams, Curtis Terry and the Rebels’ tallest starter, 6-foot-7 Joe Darger, have combined to make 191 3-pointers.
“Last year we had a couple of big guys on the inside. We blocked a lot of shots. This year we don’t block many shots,” Kruger said. “But our big guy moves to the perimeter and shoots jumpers. We have a different way of going about it.”
The ninth-seeded Golden Flashes are in the tournament for the fifth time, and second time in three years. The Mid-American Conference regular-season and postseason champions have won five straight and 11 of their last 12.
Seven players were on the team that was bounced by Pittsburgh in the first round in 2006. Thursday’s game marks another opportunity for the Flashes and the lightly regarded MAC to show off on the national stage.
“We don’t feel like we have anything to prove,” said MAC player of the year Al Fisher, who has hit three game-winning shots in the final 5 seconds, including two in the last four games. “We just feel as though we represent the MAC, and we’re going to do what we’ve been doing up until this game.”
The Flashes are well balanced, with four players averaging 9.4 points or better. Mike Scott, playing with two sprained thumbs, is scoring 12.4 in the last five games, including a career-high 23 in a MAC tournament win over Toledo.
“I probably should have had my thumbs wrapped the first three years of college because I’m feeling pretty confident from the field,” Scott said. “I ran into a problem a few games ago catching the ball, but quickly got on that.”