What Pop Isaacs Choosing UNLV Could Mean for the Program

It’s officially been 10 years since UNLV had a difference-making point guard at the helm of their program, and Oscar Bellfield was that guy. He was a senior for the Runnin’ Rebels way back during the 2011-12 season. In UNLV terms, that was 4 coaches, and 94 different players ago.

There’s been a lot of futility in that 10-year timeframe for UNLV men’s basketball, but back then the Rebels were knocking off the #1 ranked North Carolina Tarheels on national TV. They also beat the #19 Illini, and the #13 SDSU Aztecs on their way to 26 wins and an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. Sure, they were bounced by Colorado in the Round of 64, but I know a lot of people who would quite literally kill for UNLV to be a one-and-done caliber program once more.

A lot of the reason the Runnin’ Rebels were so good that season was because they had a really good lead guard. In fact, they had two. Anthony Marshall also played on that team, backing up Bellfield’s 10 ppg. and 5.5 apg (With a 2.2/1 assist to turnover ratio) with 12 ppg and 4.5 apg of his own. Those two together made life very easy for their supporting cast of Mike Moser, Chace Stanback, and Justin Hawkins to flourish.

Tragically, this was the last season any UNLV coach really prioritized that position. Not for lack of trying, but trying in the way a mad scientist tries to build a Frankenstein monster out of rotting flesh. As a result, UNLV fans became overly accustomed to the dreaded ‘plug-and-play’ point guard. Nightmare performers like Deville Smith, Cody Doolin, and Jelan Kendrick were porously inserted into lineups to try and lead Runnin’ Rebels teams that were good on paper, but not all that good at anything when it came to real basketball.

Even more tragically, UNLV was very much on the cusp of bringing in real-deal difference-makers to play point guard at different intervals in that 10-year span. Nigel Williams-Goss was slated to come be a Rebel at one point under Lon Kruger. That didn’t come to fruition because Kruger took the Oklahoma job. Williams-Goss eventually went on to lead Gonzaga to its first-ever Final Four. Then there was Jaylen Fisher. He also was coming to play for the Rebels, but Dave Rice was fired, derailing that move. Fisher ended up having an injury-riddled career at TCU and Grand Canyon, but at the time, he was seen as the next UNLV GOAT at the lead guard position.

Then real-life tragedy interfered with UNLV’s next point guard of the future. Zaon Collins from Bishop Gorman pledged to TJ Otzelberger’s 2021 class. Many in basketball circles around the country had Collins ranked as a top 40 player and he was a 5-star according to some recruiting services. His future was blindingly bright. Then on December 30th, 2020, Collins was involved in a terrible car accident where he has been alleged to be under the influence and driving at reckless speeds. The ensuing crash cost one man his life and a young man his chance to play D1 basketball.

That leads me to Pop Isaacs. The phenom point guard in the 2022 class just recently cut his list of schools to four choices. Isaacs’ finalists are UNLV, Arizona State, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech. That is undeniably some stiff competition for his services, but the new UNLV recruiting staff under Kevin Kruger has done an excellent job prioritizing the consensus four star prospect out of Las Vegas.

Some of you may recall that UNLV was actually Isaacs’ first-ever scholarship offer. Former Rebel assistant Andre Lafleur, who had followed Marvin Menzies to Las Vegas from Providence, was on-hand watching a then 14-year-old 8th grader who most were calling ‘Pop Pop’ at the time. Lafleur was so impressed with Isaacs that he offered him a scholarship on the spot. But as I mentioned above, coaching changes at UNLV have been a regular thing.

When TJ Otzelberger came to town to coach UNLV, his recruiting ideology was vastly different than Marvin Menzies’. So, after Menzies was let go after three ineffectual seasons in Vegas, Otzelberger got started on his own brand of ineptitude, which included taking Pop Isaacs out of his Rolodex. The Rebels focused on other players during his tenure, and Isaacs focused on other colleges. A long time passed without either party acknowledging the other in any meaningful way.

Fast-forward to the here and now. The fact that Kevin Kruger made up so much ground in such a short time is nothing short of impressive. Being listed as a finalist for a player of Isaacs’ ability without having ever been a head coach is even more impressive. More than that, the implications of landing Isaacs are monumental for UNLV. In fact, they’re quite literally game-changing.

Going 10 years without a difference-making point guard has been very evident in the win/loss column for UNLV. The Rebels haven’t made one single postseason tournament since the 2012-13 season, let alone the NCAA’s. They haven’t been invited to the NIT, or even the CBI or CIT. This means for every single offseason for nine years, the Rebels have been a complete and utter non-factor come March. Are there other factors involved in this momentous no-show? Of course, but not addressing the most important position on the court in any meaningful way is 1A on that laundry list of failures.

If Pop Isaacs chooses to be a Runnin’ Rebel, it means he’s choosing to bring his greatness to the program. And make no mistake, he is great. He’s an elite shooter, ball handler, and facilitator. Isaacs also happens to be an elite leader. UNLV has seen plenty of talent come and go in the form of 94 different players in the span of 10 years. What they haven’t seen is a player that exudes all the traits that Pop Isaacs does. This also means if Kevin Kruger wins this recruiting battle, he has a chance to get the Rebels back to their winning ways sooner rather than later. Much sooner.

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