Good 'n Plenty: Not Tark's Rebels, but this UNLV's worth a look

by | CBSSports.com College Basketball Insider
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Dave Rice (left) gets help from assistants Heath Schroyer and Stacey Augmon. (US Presswire)  
Dave Rice (left) gets help from assistants Heath Schroyer and Stacey Augmon. (US Presswire)  

Amidst all the shuffling among conferences, UNLV isn't going anywhere. In fact, the Running Rebels -- on the verge of a top-10 ranking -- could soon become a legitimate West Coast power again.

No, not like the days of Jerry Tarkanian. But Dave Rice is assembling quite a roster for next season after the addition of Pittsburgh transfer Khem Birch.

Envision this starting five a year from now?

Anthony Marshall, USC transfer Bryce Jones and freshman Katin Reinhardt on the perimeter with Mike Moser and Birch up front.

Wow. That's not just scary for the Mountain West. That's scary anywhere.

"Khem was a huge get for us," Rice said Monday. "He's versatile and I think he'll thrive in our up-tempo system."

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And with the addition of Birch may come another talented Canadian -- uncommitted senior Anthony Bennett, who has UNLV as one of the five schools he's considering.

Lon Kruger did a terrific job in his tenure at UNLV and new coach Rice is the first to admit how fortunate he is to have inherited a group that featured more than enough talent to compete for a Mountain West title.

However, Rice has already stepped it up in terms of recruiting. He assembled a solid staff and lured Justin Hutson, a terrific recruiter, from San Diego State. He added a former head coach in Heath Schroyer, who is also more than adept on the recruiting trail. There's also former UNLV star Stacey Augmon, who along with Rice, helps bring back the UNLV of old.

Rice and his staff landed Reinhardt out of famed Mater Dei in California and had to beat out some big boys for the talented wing's services. The Running Rebels got Birch over Florida -- and are in the mix with Kentucky, Florida, Washington and Oregon for Bennett.

"I say it all the time," Rice said. "We inherited a great situation here. We're just trying to build on it."

Hurricane en route

The NCAA committee may have a difficult time judging the Miami Hurricanes.

The team that lost to Ole Miss and Purdue in November and Memphis and West Virginia last month isn't the same one that'll take the court in ACC play.

The first time Jim Larranaga has truly had all his pieces came against UNC-Greensboro on Jan. 2. That's when he was able to throw out a lineup that included Malcoln Grant, Durant Scott and Shane Larkin on the perimeter with Reggie Johnson and Kenny Kadji up front.

Miami has won four of five since its big man returned ahead of schedule. Johnson told me he's about 85 percent back from the knee injury that put him on the shelf for five months.

"I felt like we could finish third in the ACC," Johnson said. "And I still do."

Miami took Virginia, currently considered the No. 3 team in the league, to the brink in Charlottesville. After Tuesday night's road contest against North Carolina, the 'Canes will have five games to be able to prove whether they can be in the NCAA equation: Clemson and N.C. State at home, Georgia Tech and BC on the road followed by a home game against Maryland.

Johnson said he's still not in the shape he'd like, but is down to 289 from his freshman weight of 330. In his time rehabbing, he was able to talk to Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer (both worked out at Miami during the lockout) and has added a left hand to his repertoire.

"I used to just big-boy guys and go with the layup," Johnson admitted. "Now I can two-dribble and go over my left shoulder or my right shoulder."

Mack's dunking days history

Chris Mack was trying to get his players going. Xavier had lost five of six since the fight against Cincinnati and had turned back to its hotel after sitting in bumper-to-bumper New York City traffic en route to practice at Fordham. Xavier's coach felt his team needed a jolt to get it going.

So he put one down in layup lines.

"I wanted there to be energy," Mack said.

The players went nuts.

Then he tried a reverse dunk.

As soon as he planted, it popped.

"I didn't even get off the ground," Mack said.

He limped out to the hallway and the next thing he knew he was on his way to Bellevue Hospital, where he learned he'd suffered a torn patella tendon.

"I'm a pretty optimistic person and even though I couldn't move my leg out in the hallway, the practice sounded good," Mack said.

He went on to coach his team in Saturday's win at Fordham. Mack had surgery on Sunday morning, went to practice on Monday and will begin a five-month rehab soon.

"I think in some ways this is going to make me a better coach," Mack said. "I'll have to coach differently. I'll have to be more subdued and I'll be able to observe how guys handle mistakes rather than trying to always correct them."

Lobo love

Drew Gordon thinks the early season losses to New Mexico State and Santa Clara may ultimately help his New Mexico team.

"They were humbling," said Gordon, a senior forward for the Lobos. "I think we thought we were a lot better than we actually were. Those games sparked a fire underneath us."

And Steve Alford's team has reeled off a dozen straight since.

There are reasons for the slow start, primarily the loss of leader/point guard Dairese Gairy, who graduated after last season. The Lobos started with Jamal Fenton running the team, but have thrived since Aussie freshman Hugh Greenwood was inserted into the starting lineup.

"He's one of the smartest point guards I've seen in a long, long time," Gordon said. "He's going to be something special. He has court vision like no other."

There are plenty of pieces around Greenwood. Gordon is averaging a double-double (12.7 ppg, 10.9 rpg), Tony Snell has emerged as a go-to guy; Kendall Williams has been solid; and Phillip McDonald is getting healthy after battling an ankle injury.

"We really have a team full of really talented players," Gordon said. "I'm not sure people really know how talented we are."

Gordon said taking his talent from UCLA to New Mexico (he didn't even know where Albuquerque was when he decided to leave) -- after a year and a half in the Bruins program -- was the best decision he has ever made.

"It's been life-changing," he said. "I was in a real bad place, in a real bad time, when I was at UCLA," Gordon said. "I don't want to say anything bad about the coaches or the program, but I didn't fit. It wasn't my style. But I'm in a much better spot than if I'd remained at UCLA."

Man of Steele returns in Tuscaloosa

Andrew Steele was a student-coach just a couple weeks ago. Now he's a significant part of Anthony Grant's rotation at Alabama.

Grant said Steele, who had retired after a concussion in last year's SEC tournament that forced him to miss the NIT, was playing so well on the scout team that he started to entertain the idea of returning to the court.

"He looked really good," Grant said. "He was playing fearless and I started thinking."

Steele had received a clean bill of health from the doctors in early November, and after a meeting with Grant and his family, he was cleared to play shortly after the Jacksonville game on Dec. 29.

He didn't just suit up against Georgia Tech on Jan. 3, though. He logged 12 minutes and finished with nine points. In his second game, this past weekend, Steele had nine points and four assists in 21 minutes.

"It's a great story," Grant said. "And if there's anyone who deserves something good to happen more than this kid, I'd like to meet him. He's such a good kid, is about all the right things and has dealt with a lot."

Grant said that he had no problems throwing Steele back into the fray, because he's a veteran who has been at every practice and knows the system as well as anyone on the team.

"He understands what he's doing," Grant said. "When he got hurt, it was a big loss for us last year."

Steele, who has battled numerous injuries throughout his career, gives Grant a nice veteran addition in the middle of the season and has immediately become the first guard off the bench. There's just a pair of true veterans on this club -- JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell. Trevor Releford is a sophomore and guys like Trevor Lacey, Levi Randolph, Nick Jacobs and Rodney Cooper -- each of whom have started at least four games this season -- are all freshmen.

Top of the Summit

Nate Wolters, Reggie Hamilton and Alex Young get all the hype.

But it's Dominique Morrison and Oral Roberts that sit in first place in the Summit League. The Golden Eagles are 6-0 and have already beaten Wolters' South Dakota State team and Hamilton's Oakland squad.

"It doesn't matter to me," the 6-foot-6 Morrison said. "Our goal is to win the conference -- and that's what matters to me."

Morrison admits he's not nearly as flashy as Wolters, Hamilton or Young, but his numbers are impressive. He had a career-high 38 points in the matchup against Wolters last game and is averaging 19.8 points and 4.6 rebounds.

"My game is real old-school," Morrison said. "I don't try and blow by people. I take my time and move slow, but it's been effective. Their games are sexier than mine."

Morrison played with Marcus Denmon and Travis Releford back on the summer circuit with Kansas City Pump 'N Run, but said he wasn't highly recruited because coaches didn't think he could play small forward. He was 230 pounds as a freshman in high school and now plays at 220.

Oral Roberts went to the NCAA tournament the year before he arrived -- and he'd like to leave on a high note. He said this year's team is more adept at handling adversity than a year ago, when ORU wasn't able to bounce back from losses.

"We play more as a team," Morrison said.

Scout's take

Each week we talk to an NBA executive who gives us his off-the-record thoughts on a player he has seen recently. This week we take a look at the Weber State guard Damian Lillard.

"People might question what position he can play in the NBA, whether he's a one or a two, but when you have a chance to see him in person, it's a question that's answered. He can play the point in our league. He scores a lot of points and does it in a very efficient manner. He gets to the line and also can shoot the 3. He reminds me a lot of Jeff Teague when he was at Wake Forest. He's got very good speed and quickness with the ball -- and is probably a better shooter than Teague at the same stage.

"The other question surrounding him is whether he can make the adjustment from the mid-major level. He doesn't play against the top competition, so some people will have their doubts because of that. There haven't been a ton of point guards who have emerged so far this season and the young guys are really struggling, so this is a kid that could be in the conversation as one of the top point guards on the board."

Running out the shot clock

 The loss of Chris Otule will hurt Marquette more than many realize. Otule wasn't a numbers guy, but he was the ideal complement to fellow big man Davante Gardner. Otule didn't need to get the ball in the post to be effective; he was a big body who helped create lanes for guys like Darius Johnson-Odom.

 Murray State, one of three undefeated teams left in the country, will likely be without 6-foot-7 senior forward Ivan Aska this week due to a broken hand. Aska, who is third on the team in scoring (12.6) and leads the team in rebounding, has missed the past two games after suffering the injury against Eastern Illinois on Dec. 30. The Racers host Jacksonville State on Thursday and Tennessee Tech on Saturday.

 Creighton's Doug McDermott probably won't be able to edge Jared Sullinger and Thomas Robinson for National Player of the Year honors, but he deserves more consideration. His numbers are clearly superior to last year's Player of the Year, Jimmer Fredette, through the same point of the season. McDermott is averaging 25.2 points after his 44-point outburst against Bradley over the weekend and is pulling down 8.3 rebounds per game while shooting 63 percent from the field and 58 percent from beyond the arc.

 While UNLV scored the highest-profile midyear transfer, St. John's picked up former Texas A&M guard Jamal Branch on Monday. One of the reasons was the opportunity to play; another was that Branch is friendly with current Red Storm freshman D'Angelo Harrison. Branch couldn't beat out Dash Harris at A&M, but he could thrive in N.Y.

 Can't help but wonder how Arizona State could have been at least competitive if freshman point guard Jahii Carson had been able to play this season. Without Carson, Herb Sendek didn't have a legitimate point guard and was forced to go with Keala King, who was tossed off the team this past week. It seems like an eternity ago that Sendek had the Sun Devils relevant with James Harden. It was just three years ago.

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