Rebels can thank "Panda" for helping land Kruger

The UNLV basketball team has won 10 straight and is 14-2 overall. It owned a top-10 RPI earlier this week and plays at Air Force on Saturday in a game pitting the two best Mountain West Conference teams, by far, so far this season. The Rebels have done nothing to make you think the program won't make its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2000.

In a large way, UNLV can thank one individual for its extraordinary beginning: some guy nicknamed Panda.

His real name is Rob Kral, and as a student at the University of Georgia, he was bored in class one day and surfing the Internet. He happened across a story about a little-known NCAA rule that basically states a student-athlete who graduates in four years and has one season of eligibility remaining (be it for medical redshirt or otherwise) can transfer to attend graduate school at another institution and instantly compete. Panda thought of his close friend, a basketball player at Arizona State whose head coach had been fired. Panda picked up the telephone.

"It kind of went from there," Kevin Kruger said. "To be honest, it just made sense. It was almost like I had already made the decision to leave and was just looking for a way to do so."

He discovered it in Rule 2005-54, the latest in a long list of well-intentioned NCAA statutes that are amazingly stupid.

Kruger arrived at UNLV this season to play for his father, Lon, and his presence immediately made a team that would be picked sixth in the conference far better. A senior point guard, he was gifted enough to rank among the Pac-10's top 10 players in eight categories last year and durable enough to average 39 minutes for the Sun Devils while nursing a stress fracture in his foot for the season's final three months.

The Rebels opened conference play Wednesday by beating Utah 97-94 in double-overtime. In the home victory, Kruger totaled 25 points and eight assists in 46 minutes, making 8 of 13 3-pointers in a rare showing of good shooting.

Kruger is making only 40.4 percent of his field-goal attempts and only 33.6 percent on 3s, but he also averages 4.5 assists and does other things -- like making six straight free throws down the stretch at Texas Tech to deny a sold-out arena and a nationally televised audience an opportunity to see Bob Knight make history on his first attempt at the D-I men's wins record.

"We talk all the time about having an effect on games, even when you're not shooting well," Lon Kruger said. "Kevin has not shot the ball like we think he will, but he has still played well. It's nice from a coaching perspective -- him being my son aside -- that he can have an impact without just scoring.

"He came here having already established himself as a pretty effective Pac-10 player. It's not like the jury was out on whether he could play or not."

The truth: Kruger never would have transferred, never have listened to Panda about that wacky rule, never for a second considered leaving Tempe, had Rob Evans not been dismissed following an 11-17 mark in his eighth season as ASU's coach. He was replaced by former North Carolina State coach Herb Sendek.

"[Evans] was the one who gave me a chance," Kruger said. "I wasn't highly recruited out of high school and I don't think I could have left with him still there. When people said bad things about me, he fought for me. When people said bad things about him, we as players fought for him. That was a pretty good bond we had. No one has ever instilled more confidence in me as a player than coach Evans.

"But I'm happy here. Anyone who says preseason polls don't bother them, I'd question their competitiveness. I took it personally when we were picked sixth. I guarantee you if they picked again, it would be different. Still, it's in my head that people looked at us on paper and picked us sixth. But that's what makes this team so good. We don't have any lottery picks. We probably don't have any [NBA draft] picks, period. But we also don't have any egos. We don't have anyone worrying about individual stats, which has allowed us to come together."

Kruger just makes everything easier for the Rebels. He allows sophomore Wink Adams to focus solely on scoring from his 2-guard spot. Freshman backup point guard Marcus Lawrence can gain valuable experience without having to play extended minutes. Frontcourt players like seniors Wendell White and Gaston Essengue get opportunities to convert from comfortable spots. Kruger has brought a level of confidence to a balanced team that is defending at a higher level than it has in years and has three players averaging between 14.4 and 14.8 points.

He makes everything better, yet both father and son have a similar opinion of Rule 2005-54: It's really, really dumb.

"I don't really know what [the NCAA] was thinking with it, but maybe it was intended more for seniors in sports that might not be on as grand a stage as football or basketball, for athletes where school is by far the most important thing in their lives," Kevin Kruger said. "I mean, it's no lie most Division I basketball players put school and their sport on the same level. One usually doesn't outweigh the other.

"Taking advantage of the rule gives such a negative perception. There was a rule in place and I used it. I didn't bend a rule. I didn't break a rule. I didn't interpret a rule in a way it shouldn't be interpreted. I read a rule. It applied to my situation. I used it."

Said Lon Kruger: "For sure, I would think most coaches feel it's a dangerous rule. Just because it has benefited us doesn't make it a good one. But it has worked out well for us, as a parent and for the program. But this wouldn't have been an issue had [Evans not been fired]. Not even close."

But he was and some bored kid in class at Georgia one day decided to surf the Internet.

Which makes you wonder: What in the world does Panda study?

"That," Kevin Kruger said, "is a good question."

Ed Graney is a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com.