*Midnight Madness is over, and with it went the smoke machines, dunk contests and laser shows that kick off the season. College basketball begins now, and while the excitement still remains it’s time to peel the hype back and see who the nation’s best truly are. That’s why Dime has you covered with individual previews of the nation’s top 15 teams and a few others just outside, all over the course of the next few weeks. Today, UNLV.
David Rice returns for his second season as head coach of the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. After a promising season a year ago, Rice has several new tools at his disposal that should have this year’s squad competing with the powerhouse schools in March. Key additions Khem Birch (eligible in December after transferring from Pitt) and freshman Anthony Bennett join standout Mike Moser to form potentially the best frontcourt in all of college basketball. There are many reasons to believe this will be an awfully exciting year for UNLV basketball.
This season’s UNLV squad is oozing athleticism. Rice likes his guys to run and this squad is full of athletes that can push the ball and excel in the open court. Senior guard Anthony Marshall, junior forward Moser and incoming top recruit Bennett have the ability to turn games into dunk contests. This team is long, versatile and built to fly up and down the court. While their exceptional frontcourt will get most of the attention, their wings are solid athletically and will be able to dictate the uptempo game that Rice is after.
UNLV has the tools to thrive both on the run and in a half court setting. They are excellent at getting their hands in passing lanes to poke balls away and initiate fast breaks (last year’s squad averaged an excellent 8.38 steals per game). The Rebels’ 17.7 assists per game last season was the third best average in the nation and although they lost senior assist leader Oscar Bellfield, Marshall (second on team last season with 4.5 assists per game) will be ready to take up the slack and distribute the basketball to the dangerous weapons around him. Returning stud forward Moser, transfer Birch (class of 2011’s top ranked center recruit) and newcomer Bennett (top power forward prospect from this class) could end up being the best frontcourt in the nation.
While the Rebels have several new additions this season, a summer Canadian tour (four games and 10 practices) gave the squad opportunities to jell and get to know each other both on and off the court. The Rebels went 4-0 in Canada while Rice utilized four different starting lineups to help his guys get comfortable with the whole team and not just their expected units. The veteran leadership returning with Moser, Marshall and senior guard and defensive standout Justin Hawkins will help get the newcomers on the same page and playing together for coach Rice.
Rice scored a huge recruit in incoming freshman forward Anthony Bennett. Ranked as the top power forward prospect in his class (and top 10 overall by most scouting services), Bennett is a supremely talented and athletic big who has excellent range on his jumper. He will look to make his presence immediately known and could be a potential one-and-done player (ESPN’s Chad Ford has him as a lottery pick in next year’s draft). One thing to watch for is how Moser adapts to playing the small forward position alongside Bennett at the four. Those two could make a formidable one-two punch.
UNLV has arguably the best frontcourt in the country. The combination of Moser (14 points and 10.5 rebounds per game last season) and McDonald’s All-Americans Birch and Bennett will be a tough group for any Mountain West opponent to slow down. And speaking of the Mountain West conference, the Rebels’ loaded roster this year has them primed to go after their first conference title since 2000, when they were regular season co-champions with Utah. In just his second season at the helm of the Rebels, Rice will be looking to make some serious noise come tournament time and he has the tools to do it.
What do you think?
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.