“Rome was not made all in one day.”—French proverb
It was an abrupt end to what looked to be a promising postseason for UNLV on Thursday night when the No. 6-seed Runnin' Rebels were upset by No. 11-seed Colorado 68-64 in the South Regional in Albuquerque, N.M.
But as much electricity and hope as head coach Dave Rice and his staff brought to Sin City by turning pretty good UNLV into a very good team, next season promises to be even better. Here's why.
There’s no doubt the loss to Colorado will motivate Rice, who was a member of UNLV's 1989-90 squad that won the NCAA championship under local legend Jerry Tarkanian. Besides that fire in the belly, Rice gained valuable experience in his first year as a head coach and will be able to apply everything he’s learned from the roller-coaster season that was 2011-12.
Many say Rice was “working with Lon Kruger’s team,” but after assembling a quality coaching staff, next year it will definitely be his team.
The top player in the Mountain West Conference this season was New Mexico's Drew Gordon (13.5 points and 11.0 rebounds per game), a senior who will no longer be shredding conference opponents. Gordon led the Lobos to their semifinal upset over UNLV in the MWC semifinals last Friday, denying the the Runnin’ Rebels a possible No. 5 or No. 4 seed. where they probably would have faced a lesser opponent than Colorado.
Gordon is so talented that you will likely see him in the NBA next season. So for UNLV, it’s goodbye and good riddance to Mr. Gordon.
The biggest reason UNLV was successful in 2011-12 was the emergence of UCLA transfer Mike Moser. He was so off the radar of most experts that Lindy’s College Basketball 2011-2012 preview didn’t have the 6'8", 195-pounder on its preseason first, second or third All-MWC teams. Moser needs to put on a little weight and muscle in the offseason and work on his endurance. He seemed to run out of gas in February.
Moser finished 10th in the nation in rebounding (10.6 rpg) and led the Rebels in scoring (14.0 ppg). And in an extremely underpublicized interview with ESPN 1100 radio’s Seat Williams, Moser said he would most likely be returning next year. Let’s hope he is as good with his word as he is on the hardwood.
The most dependable guy for UNLV this past season, Anthony Marshall (6'3", 200 pounds) can do it all. The local Las Vegas product (Mojave High School) can score, rebound, pass and run the offense. He will hopefully evolve into that leader on the floor the Rebels so desperately need.
If all goes well for Marshall his senior season, he may develop into an NBA prospect. This is one player you can build a team around.
USC transfer Bryce Jones should join Marshall in the backcourt. According to talk around town, he is the toughest of all UNLV players during practice. After letting his aggression occasionally get the best of him, Jones reportedly is adjusting nicely in team practices.
What a nice problem for Rice to have, a hard-nosed prospect who has been waiting a year to get his chance to shine. Can’t wait to see him on the court.
Having a guy like Bryce Jones waiting in the wings is one thing, but to have two such players as redshirts? Priceless.
Khem Birch (6'8", 220 pounds) should fit into the power forward slot and provide protection for Mike Moser as well as scoring and rebounding underneath.
Birch, a native of Montreal, Canada, also has been practicing with the team after transferring from Pittsburgh. He was ranked the No. 9 incoming freshman this year by Lindy’s College Basketball 2011-2012 and was named a McDonald’s High School All-American. He led the West in points (15), rebounds (10) and blocked shots (six) in the annual classic. Birch also was named second-team USA Today All-American.
Birch played at Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass., where he averaged 18 points, 13 boards and six blocks.
Because of NCAA transfer rules, Birch will have to sit out two semesters and will be eligible to play for UNLV only after the completion of the fall 2012 semester. He will officially be a sophomore and will have two years of eligibility remaining.
Ranked by ESPNU as the No. 60 senior high school player in the country, Mater Dei’s Katin Reinhardt (6'4", 190 pounds) should be the team’s next great shooting guard and will guarantee that UNLV will keep its record-setting three-point streak alive.
As tough as Jones is allegedly said to be, Reinhardt is said to be just as feisty on the court. Playing for one of the nation’s best high schools, Reinhardt proved he can score from anywhere and isn’t afraid to storm the lane and throw down an occasional dunk.
Las Vegas will develop a love affair with this kid who may be able to crack UNLV’s starting five in his freshman year. He’s that good.
Besides landing Jones, Birch and Reinhardt, UNLV’s coaching staff did a great job recruiting and getting local kid Demitris Morant (6'8", 190 pounds), who started as a power forward for 4A champions and perennial powerhouse Bishop Gorman, and Daquan Cook (6'1", 175 pounds) from St. Frances High School in Baltimore. Cook, a point guard, was named an AAU Under-Armour B’More Finest.
And also still considering playing for the Runnin' Rebels is Findlay Prep's Anthony Bennett, a McDonald's All-American selection and the No. 7 overall prospect by Rivals.com whom fellow Canadian Birch is recruiting pretty hard.
With Moser, Marshall, Jones, Birch, Reinhardt, Morant and Cook, UNLV has some real talent. But the bench and its expected returnees are almost as impressive.
Quintrell Thomas and Justin Hawkins will likely return for their senior years, Carlos Lopez, Karam Mashour and Reggie Smith should all be back for their junior seasons, and Barry Chaney, Bryan Glenn and Wade Norman, all sophomores, will fight for roster spots on a team that may be stacked.
UNLV also has a commitment from Findlay Prep power forward Christian Wood (6'8", 195 pounds) for 2013. And if there’s one thing the Rebels may be lacking next year, it’s that needed size in the paint.
The nation's top-ranked senior, Shabazz Muhammad, calls Las Vegas home and every college in the land would love to get him. Kentucky, UCLA, Duke and Arizona are among the schools reportedly on Muhammad’s short list and according to his Bishop Gorman teammate Morant, Muhammad has UNLV listed in his top three.
Muhammad (6'5", 205 pounds) played under Grant Rice in high school, the brother of UNLV head coach Dave Rice. The guard/forward’s sister is professional tennis player Asia Muhammad.
Muhammad was named a McDonald’s All-American and the Morgan Wootten Player of the Year and will play for the West All-Stars in the McDonald’s All-American Game on March 28 (ESPN, 9:30 p.m. ET/6:30 p.m. PT).
If UNLV can land Muhammad, who scored 40 or more points four times this past season, it would most likely put the Rebels in most pundits preseason Top 10 lists. So start saying your prayers, Las Vegas.
If everything goes as planned for UNLV—if Moser stays and Jones, Birch and Reinhardt play up to their potential—talk of a Sweet 16 appearance next year would certainly be justified. But if Muhammad decides to sign with UNLV, the sky will be the limit and a Final Four appearance would not be out of the question for what would surely be the West Coast’s best team.
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Kevin Stott has written sports for the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s View Newspapers and Gaming Today and bleeds UNLV scarlet and gray when not bleeding Chelsea blue.