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October 15, 2008? MORE: Mountain West Notebook: Experience matters
LAS VEGAS ? Most of UNLV's players are too young to remember the program's glory days.
Not Wink Adams. The 6-foot senior point guard was only 5 years old when the Rebels won their first and only national title in 1990, but the Houston native remembers it vividly because his childhood was surrounded by constant reminders.
"In Houston, you used to see UNLV stuff everywhere," Adams said. "People always like to talk about all the Duke stuff back then (the Blue Devils pulled off a shocking upset of a then-undefeated Rebels team in the 1991 national semifinals in the midst of five consecutive runs to the Final Four), but where I was from everybody wanted a UNLV Starter jacket. I've been wanting to come to UNLV since 1990."
UNLV coach Lon Kruger will be forever thankful for that. The Rebels program was far removed from the dominating era of Jerry Tarkanian, which produced four Final Four appearances, when Kruger took over in 2004. The Rebels had been to two NCAA tournaments in the previous 13 years and hadn't advanced past the first round in either trip.
The Runnin' Rebels, which had garnered such a reputation for their uptempo style, swagger and winning ways in the 1980s and early '90s, had drifted off the national radar. Kruger was desperate for something to point to, for other prospects to believe in, especially after a 17-14 mark in his first year. Along came Adams. Ranked the No. 2 point guard and No. 19 overall prospect in the 2005 class, Adams could have gone virtually anywhere he wanted. He took official visits to Arkansas and Oklahoma, but signed with the Rebels.
"Coach Kruger said they were going to rebuild things here," said the explosive Adams, who has a deadly first step. "I believed him. (Senior guard Joe) Darger also had already committed and we had met at a camp. That also helped."
Adams earned a starting spot as a freshman, but the Rebels went 17-13 and failed to even reach the NIT. The breakthrough came the following year. The Rebels racked up 30 wins ? their most since that famous 1990-91 squad ? and reached the Sweet 16. With the loss of the four other starters, virtually everyone predicted a big drop-off. The Rebels went on to win the Mountain West tournament for the second consecutive year, won 27 games and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament before falling to eventual champion Kansas.
We may not have seen the best yet of Adams and the Rebels. Kruger has his best blend of talent and experience since arriving in Las Vegas. Three of the four leading scorers are back, and the Rebels are adding a talented recruiting class of seven newcomers that features 7-footer Beas Hamga, a former five-star prospect who redshirted last season.
No single player has been more responsible for the remarkable turnaround than Adams. The veteran has started 92 consecutive games and averaged double figures in scoring in each of his last three seasons, including a team-high 16.9 ppg last season, which ranked third in the conference. But, Adams' value goes well beyond the stats. Without him, signing players of Hamga's caliber would have never been possible.
"I can go on and on about Wink," Kruger said. "You cannot overstate how valuable he has been to this program. He works extremely hard to be a better player and that has sent a great message to the rest of the team. His work ethic is outstanding. And he's really becoming an outstanding vocal leader. The guys really follow his lead."
That may have been the case wherever Adams had chosen to go to college. The rest of the Mountain West Conference is loaded with his admirers.
"Wink is so versatile," said BYU coach Dave Rose, whose Cougars have lost to Adams and the Rebels the last two seasons in the conference tournament title game. "If you lay off him he'll stick the 3-pointer, and if you pressure him he can go left or right. He's great at creating space and is strong enough to finish. He's also a good free-throw shooter."
Here's what BYU swingman Lee Cummard, who shared the MWC co-preseason player of the year honor with Adams, had to say about his counterpart: "Wink gets to the rim better than anybody in our league and finishes at rim better than any in our league. He's a gamer. He gets that look in his eye like he's the best guy on the floor. It doesn't get talked about much, but he's also the best perimeter defender in the league."
With a big senior year, Adams has a chance to finish as high as second on UNLV's all-time scoring list, in front of the likes of Sidney Green (No. 2) and Stacey Augmon (No. 3). Eddie Owens ranks No. 1 at 2,221 points.
"It would have been hard to project he'd have this kind of career," Kruger said. "We knew he'd be good, but he has a chance to be one of the top players in school history."
Adams' impact may actually be felt more once he leaves school. With a stockpile of young talent on the roster, the Rebels are in position to be a regular visitor to the NCAA tournament.
Someday, they may look back and say it was all because of Wink.
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.