|Dave Rice has earned quick respect; 'there's nothing phony about him,' ex-UNLV star Greg Anthony says. (AP)|
LAS VEGAS -- Dave Rice saw it up-close, as a graduate assistant to Jerry Tarkanian when the UNLV Runnin' Rebels were, well, maybe the most entertaining and intimidating team that had rolled through college basketball in decades.
Rice knows it'll never be like it was in the early 1990s, when UNLV was the headline act in college hoops. The Runnin' Rebels aren't going to surpass Kentucky as long as John Calipari is in Lexington, but the onetime player turned coach certainly has put UNLV back on the national map. He doesn't talk about changing the culture, either, which is refreshing since Lon Kruger did a more-than-admirable job in his eight seasons in this city. Kruger took UNLV to four NCAA tournament appearances -- and a Sweet 16 in 2007.
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But let's face it: The talent level hasn't been this high in Sin City since Tark left.
"On paper it's the most talented team," said former Runnin' Rebs guard Greg Anthony, the starting point guard on the national title 1990 team. "Expectations will be high."
There are at least three potential first-round picks on the roster: Junior Mike Moser would have likely been picked in the back end of the first round if he'd left after this past season; Pittsburgh transfer Khem Birch will have a chance if he can develop an offensive game; and fellow Canadian Anthony Bennett comes in as a legitimate top-10 recruit with huge upside.
"Talent-wise, we're there with the best of them," said former UConn forward Roscoe Smith, who transferred to UNLV after spending two seasons in Storrs and is still hopeful of being cleared by the NCAA to suit up this season.
Remember, Smith was a member of the Kemba Walker-led national champion UConn Huskies two seasons ago. He has played against teams like Syracuse and Louisville in the Big East, gone up against Kentucky and Michigan State in non-conference games.
Rice was hired a little more than a year ago to follow Kruger and take this program another step forward, to one that didn't just earn trips to the NCAA tournament -- but one that could make a legitimate run to the Final Four. With a potential starting lineup (when Birch becomes eligible in December) of Moser, Bennett and Birch on the frontline with senior Anthony Marshall and either USC transfer Bryce Jones or talented freshman Katin Reinhardt on the wing, it's no longer a pipe dream.
UNLV won 26 games in Rice's rookie campaign, but that was just a taste of what those in Vegas can expect going forward. This group is far more talented than the one from a year ago. Gone are Chace Stanback, Oscar Bellfield and Brice Massamba. In are Birch and a stellar freshman class that includes Bennett, Reinhardt, Savon Goodman, Daquan Cook and Demetrius Morant.
Rice's personality mirrors that of Kruger. Both are laid-back, rarely swear at the players and coach with a calm demeanor. Anthony says he has "a quality that endears you to him." Adding that Rice is, "genuine and really cares. There's nothing phony about him."
But the difference between Rice and his predecessor is that the current guy understands what sells in Vegas. Where Rice has retained as much of the defensive concepts that Kruger preached, his recruiting pitch is that he'll allow his players offensive freedom to play at a breakneck pace.
"He wants to push it as fast as he can," Marshall said.
That's one of the major factors why Reinhardt came to UNLV instead of Texas, Syracuse, Washington and Baylor.
"He gives you the freedom to make a mistake," Reinhardt said. "And you aren't looking over at the bench."
The frontline will be long and athletic. So will the backcourt. These guys will run, press, run some more and also get after teams on the defensive end. With Marshall, one of the elite perimeter defenders in the country, and Birch down low protecting the rim, the Runnin' Rebs will be difficult to score against. Rose told CBSSports.com that Moser will spend the majority of his time at the small forward spot after playing power forward extensively last season.
"That's best not only for his development, but also for our team," Rice said.
Rice is raving about Jones, who sat out last season after transferring from USC. He's a 6-foot-6 wing who has the ability to make a play on the offensive end of the floor and is "as competitive as any player Rice has ever coached." Bennett, who had a questionable academic track record, was recently cleared by the NCAA to play this season -- but his status for the team's trip to Canada in mid-August is still unclear.
"You can sense the excitement around here," Marshall said. "Everywhere I go, people want to talk about basketball. It's different than it's been."
And Marshall's expectations aren't the same, either.
"Our goal isn't just to get to the Final Four," he said. "It's to win a national title."
Over the last few years, Marshall would have been mocked for uttering those words. These days, though, it doesn't sound quite so crazy.