UNLV to meet with Cincinnati transfer guard Mike Saunders

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Courtesy of UNLV

Kevin Kruger gives instructions to UNLV players during a timeout in this undated file photo. Kruger, a former player and an assistant coach to T.J. Otzelberger at UNLV, was introduced Monday as the Rebels new head coach.

Mon, Apr 5, 2021 (2 a.m.)

UNLV has already added an experienced point guard via the transfer portal, but it appears Kevin Kruger isn’t stopping there.

Kruger and his staff will meet with Cincinnati transfer Mike Saunders this week via Zoom, according to Stockrisers.com, in hopes of luring the former 3-star point guard to Las Vegas.

Saunders was a fairly important recruit for new Cincinnati coach John Brannen just a year ago, as 247Sports ranked him No. 237 overall in the Class of 2020. He was the No. 38 point guard and helped Brannen reel in the top incoming class in the American Athletic Conference.

As a freshman, Saunders got into 22 games and started 10. He averaged just 3.5 points and 1.4 assists in 15.5 minutes per game, but appeared to come on strong toward the end of the year. Over the final six games (five starts), Saunders averaged 27.2 minutes and put up 8.2 points and 2.3 assists.

Outside shooting was an issue for Saunders; he connected on just 5-of-23 from 3-point range in his first season (21.7%) and shot 38.8% from the field overall.

Saunders’s game is built around speed and athleticism, however, and he flashed a strong ability to get inside the defense and break things down off the dribble—something no one on the UNLV roster could do in 2020-21:

Saunders has already held virtual meetings with Utah coach Craig Smith and BYU coach Mark Pope. Though he is originally from Indianapolis, Saunders played his high-school ball at Wasatch Academy in Utah.

UNLV added West Virginia transfer Jordan McCabe last week, but McCabe may only have one season (or two, depending on whether he exercises his COVID year) of eligibility remaining. Saunders would be a long-term piece for UNLV, as he’s got at least three more years of eligibility.

Loading up on ball-handlers

Former UNLV coach T.J. Otzelberger took a risk last year by going into the season with Coleman as his only point guard, and he got burned in a big way when shin splints knocked Coleman out for most of the season.

With no true point to run the offense, Otzelberger was forced to shift natural wings Bryce Hamilton and David Jenkins into a primary ball-handler role. It didn’t work; the added responsibilities made Hamilton a less efficient scorer, and asking Jenkins to play out of position only furthered the divide between him and Otzelberger.

Kruger apparently doesn’t want to make the same mistake. Even with Coleman coming back, UNLV has already added a veteran point in McCabe and now they’re going after Saunders with the intention of expanding the depth chart.

Speed upgrade

UNLV fielded an exceedingly slow roster last year. Saunders would be an upgrade in that regard, as his quickness (with and without the ball) is unquestioned.

If Saunders reaches his potential, he projects as the type of point guard who can utilize ball-screens to penetrate the defense, and he should also be capable of breaking down his man off the dribble. The more players who can do that, the more effective UNLV’s offense should be.

His speed also makes him a potential plus-defender. He was regarded as a good defensive player in high school, and though his stats lagged on that end of the floor in 2020-21 (2.1% steal rate, 105.4 defensive rating) that’s not unusual for a true freshman.

If Kruger is able to land Saunders, he’d pretty much be the fastest, quickest player on the roster as soon as he arrives in Las Vegas.

Roster reset

As it stands now, UNLV has seven open scholarships. Current players Coleman, Moses Wood, Nick Blake and Reece Brown have not entered the transfer portal and are slated to return, and incoming transfers McCabe and Royce Hamm bring the scholarship number to six.

Hamilton will test the NBA Draft process before making a decision, and Jenkins left the door open to return to UNLV after going through a portal recruitment process, so one of both of them could come back. And center Mbacke Diong could choose to exercise his extra COVID year.

Even if Hamilton and Jenkins and Diong return, UNLV would still need to add four more players to the 2021-22 roster, which shows just how much work is still to be done via the transfer portal. If none of them come back, Kruger and his staff will have to bring in seven more players.

Whether Saunders commits or not, UNLV is still very much in the beginning stages of the offseason.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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