Last March, the UNLV women’s basketball team won the Mountain West Conference tournament. It made for quite a scene.
Family, friends and fans swarmed the court at the Thomas & Mack Center. Point guard Essence Booker was named tournament MVP. Head coach Lindy La Rocque ascended a ladder to cut down the net. A few days later, the team and hundreds of supporters gathered on campus to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show.
The vibe around the program was pure, and the March Madness fanfare was well-deserved for a team that won 26 games and made the big dance for the first time in 20 years. And it didn’t go unnoticed by their players’ peers.
Keshon Gilbert, who had just completed his freshman season with the UNLV men’s basketball team, remembers watching the women’s run and taking notes.
“It was right in front of us,” Gilbert says. “It kind of made us say, if they can do it, we can do it.”
A season later, both programs are thriving, with a combined record of 23-5 at press time. The women are favorites to win the league again, and the men stormed out to a surprising 10-0 start under second-year coach Kevin Kruger and have played their way into the at-large discussion for the 2023 tournament.
Kruger and La Rocque have a lot in common, from their local ties to their plans for improving their respective programs.
Both spent formative years around Las Vegas basketball. Kruger’s father, Lon, coached the UNLV men from 2004-11, and Kevin joined the team as a grad transfer for the 2006-07 campaign. He led the Scarlet and Gray in assists that season and guided the team on an exhilarating run to the Sweet 16.
JANUARY 14 –Colorado State
4 p.m., Thomas & Mack Center
JANUARY 24 –Wyoming
8 p.m., Thomas & Mack Center
JANUARY 28 –UNR
7 p.m., Thomas & Mack Center
FEBRUARY 3 –Fresno State
8 p.m., Thomas & Mack Center
FEBRUARY 14 –San Jose State
7 p.m., Thomas & Mack Center
FEBRUARY 24 –Air Force
6:30 p.m., Thomas & Mack Center
La Rocque’s dad, Al, was a legendary prep coach who racked up 280 wins and a pair of state championships at Durango High School. Lindy starred for the girls’ team and earned a scholarship to play at Stanford (2008-12); before that, she served as a ball girl for the UNLV men’s team from 1998 to 2002.
UNLV is the first head coaching job for both, but they have quickly proven capable of leading a program.
La Rocque took over a squad that hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament in two decades, but based on her familiarity with the Mountain West, she believed a fast turnaround was possible.
“I felt like I knew the league,” La Rocque says. “I felt it was winnable. And I think we got the right people in place really quickly, which is sometimes the hardest part. I felt it was a place that had the structure and the resources for that success. We just had to pull it out.”
Kruger’s task was different, based on the outsize expectations of a fan base that still remembers the Jerry Tarkanian teams—including the 1990 national champs.
It’s impossible to turn a mid-major program into a title contender overnight, but Kruger says he thinks UNLV can get there. “It’s an extremely unique job. We’re not going to snap our fingers and be Tark’s Runnin’ Rebels. Don’t get me wrong, we would love to be as good and feared and dominant as the Tark-era Runnin’ Rebels.
“But it’s something that, having lived here, played here—my dad coached through it—I think if anything, that helped me understand the expectations of being a Final Four contender every year. We’ve got to build it.”
When it comes to building a roster, Kruger and La Rocque diverge slightly on the type of players they’re seeking.
When Kruger and his assistants gathered in the offseason to set their recruiting agenda, there was a clear priority. “We kept finding ourselves gravitating toward defensive-minded guys who play hard,” he says.
JANUARY 14 –New Mexico
6 p.m., Cox Pavilion
JANUARY 16 –Boise State
8 p.m., Cox Pavilion
JANUARY 28 –UNR
2 p.m., Cox Pavilion
FEBRUARY 9 –Fresno State
5 p.m., Cox Pavilion
FEBRUARY 16 –San Jose State
6:30 p.m., Thomas & Mack Center
FEBRUARY 23 – Utah State
6:30 p.m., Cox Pavilion
Since time immemorial, freshmen have struggled to guard at the NCAA level. That led Kruger to the transfer portal, where he found a rotation’s worth of willing defenders in senior wings E.J. Harkless, Eli Parquet and Luis Rodriguez. All three veterans became opening-night starters, and UNLV now fields one of the best defenses in the country. The Scarlet and Gray ranks 38th nationally and second in the Mountain West in defensive efficiency, and the team is No. 1 in the nation in forcing turnovers.
The team has a clear identity, and all players have bought into Kruger’s defense-first vision. The wins have followed.
La Rocque has leaned in the other direction, seeking out players who bring a variety of talents to the offensive end of the court.
“When we’re recruiting high school players or transfers, we really value some offensive skill set,” La Rocque says. “Being able to be multidimensional. I don’t ever want to play with someone out there that can’t do something offensively, because then you’re playing 4-on-5.”
Desi-Rae Young fits that mold. The 6-foot-1 center from Desert Oasis was a member of La Rocque’s first recruiting class at UNLV, and she has developed into perhaps the most efficient offensive force in the Mountain West. She averaged 15.2 points per game last year as a sophomore en route to MWC Player of the Year honors, and she has upped her production to 17.8 points this season while making 61.0% of her shots.
The UNLV women averaged 75.3 points per game last year, ranking second in the Mountain West. This season they’re up to 78.6 points, first in the league and 28th in the nation at press time.
Both teams take after their point guards, and that’s by design.
Gilbert has been nothing short of a revelation for the Scarlet and Gray men. Recruited out of Durango while Kruger was still an assistant under previous head coach T.J. Otzelberger, Gilbert was often considered an afterthought in his class. His tenacious, attacking style on defense earned him minutes as a freshman and quickly made him a fan favorite.
Now Gilbert’s offensive game has caught up. He’s averaging 12.5 points and a team-best 3.7 assists per game, and, after a December 10 win over Washington State, Kruger paid him the ultimate compliment by saying the entire team takes after Gilbert.
Gilbert seems to understand the gravity of that statement. “It means a lot,” he says. “I think everybody on the team has that dog in them, but to hear him say that, it definitely means a lot.”
While Gilbert’s game has blossomed naturally, Booker has had to work to master her role as the point guard for the women’s team.
Through her first three collegiate seasons (first at UNR, then Ball State), the Spring Valley product played shooting guard and considered that to be her true position. But La Rocque recognized her potential as a floor general and convinced her to transfer to UNLV and run the point.
“I didn’t think I could do it,” Booker says. “She thought I could do it. I was very nervous and questioning myself and didn’t have a lot of confidence. She said, ‘This is what you’re going to do, and we’re going to take on this challenge together.’ And she’s morphed me into this elite point guard.
“It not only has helped my game, but it has helped me become a better leader.”
Booker turned in a career year at her new position, averaging a team-high 15.5 points and 3.8 assists. And when the stakes were highest in the MWC tournament, Booker came through by hitting all the big shots and earning MVP honors.
With Booker and Gilbert playing point guard, both teams are in good hands.
With its basketball programs surging, it’s only natural to look toward the future and wonder how long UNLV can keep it going. A mid-major school is a stepping stone for young coaches, and if they continue winning at their current rates, La Rocque (33 years old) and Kruger (39) will be fielding offers before long.
La Rocque previously served as an assistant at Stanford, her alma mater, so there have already been whispers about her path to becoming the Cardinal head coach someday. UNLV has done what it can on that front, signing her to a five-year contract extension in May.
Kruger, who has been an assistant at Northern Arizona and Oklahoma, has three years remaining on his current contract after this season. His father retired as head coach at Oklahoma two years ago and moved back to Las Vegas in order to be closer to his son and their family. Kruger says he’s happy with his current situation but that he hasn’t had any extension talks with UNLV.
In fact, he says his dad would probably advise against that. “I’ve got a pretty good mentor, and if I brought that up, I’m pretty sure he’d say you’d better just go win ballgames and let the rest take care of itself.”
The Next Wave: To continue surging, UNLV must win on the recruiting trail
The NCAA’s newly instituted one-time transfer rule has changed the recruiting landscape, making it more common for veteran college players to seek out new homes. Under Kevin Kruger, for instance, UNLV has made itself a landing spot for underappreciated grinders who are looking for expanded roles.
That formula has served Kruger well so far, but he also recognizes the importance of wooing high-upside youngsters from the high-school ranks. Sometimes that means going out of state, as he did in signing explosive Class of 2023 guard Brooklyn Hicks of Timberline (Lacey, Washington). It also means targeting the talent-rich Las Vegas area.
UNLV is currently in the mix for Class of 2024 point guard D.J. Thomas, a 4-star player who led Liberty to a state championship last year. His father is former UNLV player Dedan Thomas; they both attended UNLV’s upset win over Dayton at the Thomas & Mack Center earlier this season.
Kruger says he wants UNLV to be a destination for top local prospects. “Anytime you recruit a local player there’s just a different type of relationship,” Kruger says. “It’s a stronger relationship because of how much you can be around each other, how often they can be on campus and come to games.
“There’s a lot of talent here in Las Vegas. If we could build a Runnin’ Rebel team around a core of Las Vegas guys, we would love it.”
On the women’s side, Lindy La Rocque has three newcomers signed for the Class of 2023.
Meadow Roland is a 6-foot-2 forward from Fresno, California, who has already drawn Desi-Rae Young comparisons from La Rocque, a high bar to set. Amarachi Kimpson is a top point guard prospect from Little Elm, Texas, and McKinna Brackens is an athletic forward from Fairfield, Texas.
Click HERE to subscribe for free to the Weekly Fix, the digital edition of Las Vegas Weekly! Stay up to date with the latest on Las Vegas concerts, shows, restaurants, bars and more, sent directly to your inbox!