|Bennett snubbing Kentucky and Florida for UNLV shows Dave Rice's recruiting strength. (Getty Images)|
For those who have waited and waited and waited for UNLV to be a force on the national scene once again, that stall appears to be over.
And one commitment Saturday afternoon cemented it. UNLV basketball isn't all the way back, per se, but it will have expectations that will reach a mesosphere not seen or breathed in two decades thanks to Anthony Bennett's verbal pledge to the program over the weekend.
If you think UNLV being great is good for college basketball, be encouraged and giddy over this unforeseen turn of events.
The 6-foot-8 Torontonian is a unanimous top-10 2012 recruit, a forward who can deftly play the 3 and the 4. He has got range in that jump shot, too, and instantly gives UNLV one of the nation's best frontcourts. And I'm not only talking about a starting three when I say frontcourt. Because, friends, UNLV is positively stacked with bigs next season. It's a stockpile at this point, and the weaponry assembled in the desert should be very fun to watch come next season.
Forget those great teams from the Jerry Tarkanian era; UNLV's never had as much beef in the paint and as much depth at the position as it will next year. The Runnin' Rebels will go big to win big next year, and they just got their biggest win yet of the offseason with this coup of a recruiting snatch. Bennett will play alongside 2011-12 All-American honorable mention Mike Moser (a future NBA draft pick who averaged 14 points and 10.5 boards last season) and another junior, 6-11 Carlos Lopez. There's also incoming freshman Demetris Morant, a 6-8 leaper with heralded athletic ability. Oh, and former Pitt big man Khem Birch, a player who could be a starter at almost any school in the country. L-O-A-D-E-D.
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Can any team in the country compete with that up front? I'm looking and having a hard time finding one. UNLV doesn't have the Syracuse or Kentucky talent throughout but second-year Rebels coach Dave Rice will have a frontcourt rotation as good as or better than any other program.
And here's the nutty thing: Without Birch, they probably don't get Bennett. Rice landed Birch after the Canadian big man quickly realized Pittsburgh was the wrong choice for him. Why UNLV? I don't know. But without that Canadian, does UNLV land Bennett, another big prize from up north? Birch was apparently instrumental in getting Bennett to do the curious: eliminate Kentucky from his final list. Bennett was originally believed to be headed to Florida or UK, naturally, as those were the two schools clearly ahead of everyone else.
Then he did the unthinkable -- seriously. If you're a top-10 player and you're not whittling Kentucky down to your final two these days, it’s considered unthinkable -- and lopped off the Wildcats and the Gators last week.
That left Oregon or UNLV and it became UNLV on Saturday, making the Runnin' Rebels a power again.
CBSSports.com recruiting guru Jeff Borzello said he now puts Vegas' 2012 class at No. 12 overall, which is rounded out by top-50 guard Katin Reinhardt and DaQuan Cook. What was UNLV's 2011 class? Unranked ... because there was only one recruit which means UNLV didn't even meet eligibility considerations for the recruitniks who rank such things. And it's not all about the frontcourt. The guards are quite good, too. Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins are seniors. Value there. And Bryce Jones is a talented USC transfer who will also see plenty of playing time.
Looking at this roster, it doesn't resemble anything close to what a non-major-conference team should put together. Not even Gonzaga gets this much talent. UNLV is turning back the clock toward becoming a nationally significant program again -- and fast.
Rice played on those epic teams more than 20 years ago and connects two very different eras of UNLV hoops. No, these aren't Tark's Runnin' Rebels (though this team loves to get up and down), but something about relevance at UNLV gets us excited about the sport. Maybe it's nostalgia, maybe it's the craving for a western team outside of the Pac-12 doing well and aligning itself with a chance to reach a Final Four. This team has a legitimate chance to reach Atlanta.
Rice is quietly one of the most dedicated, diligent and limpid new coaches in college basketball. In terms of hires in the past three years, few look better now. It's Rice and Missouri's Frank Haith, really, and Rice seems to have done more with less.
The further emergence of UNLV underscores the Mountain West's already solid national stature. It was a top-six conference last year, besting the Pac-12 by a mile, and it could do that again, considering San Diego State is a top-10 preseason team. UNLV's haul adds to the MWC's cache in what could be the final year of its eight-team arrangement. San Diego State is headed to the Big West, and after its departure, the onus is on UNLV to keep the league viable and interesting.
The left side of the country's been aching for some quality, expectation-worthy hoops for a few years now. UNLV's been working toward this for a half-decade. The program's made five of the past six NCAA tournaments, and its most recent sign of worthiness came with that big victory against then- No. 1 North Carolina last November.
This team, which won't get to ease into a new era of expectation (nor should it) boosts the credibility and watchability not only in its conference but in its entire region. The Runnin' Rebels' renaissance appears to be set for its undeniable return later this year.