Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011 | 2 a.m.
The buzz for the 2011-12 UNLV men's basketball season has stayed consistently high ever since Dave Rice was hired as the program's new head coach back in early April.
Expect it to spike even higher this weekend.
The Rebels' first campaign under the former UNLV player and assistant coach officially begins Saturday afternoon, when the team will take part in its first official full-length practice of the season. The weekend's festivities also include Friday's 6 p.m. team introduction event in downtown Las Vegas at the Fremont Street Experience and Sunday evening's 6 p.m. Scarlet & Gray Scrimmage at the Thomas & Mack Center.
With things getting under way, here are five key themes to watch early and often as the Rebels embark on the most anticipated season in the program's recent history.
1) Remember, it all starts with defense
All the talk this offseason around town about what Rice and his staff will bring to the table right away centered on the uptempo offensive play that he orchestrated while on the bench at BYU.
UNLV has the athletes to execute it and score in a similar manner that the Cougars did the last few seasons (despite not having a Jimmer Fredette-type on the roster). Eventually, they'll have their conditioning right where it needs to be, too.
But at the same time, Rice is not letting his team forget what the Rebels' bread and butter has been over the better part of the last decade, most notably under Lon Kruger — defense.
Last season, out of 336 Division I programs, UNLV ranked 13th in turnover margin (+3.7), 47th in scoring defense (62.9 ppg) and 41st in field goal percentage defense (40.5).
On Tuesday afternoon, during a one-hour workout at the Mack, Rice noticed some defensive lapses during a team drill, forcing him to stop his players in the middle of live action. He raised his voice briefly to remind them that, for the last several years, "it's been difficult for anyone to move the ball in this building."
The message was heeded, as the rest of the drill was far more intense. He's hoping that reminder doesn't have to be repeated very often.
"Certainly, we've branded our whole program with this 'Let's Run' motto, but if it's going to be successful, the foundation of the program on the court has to be really solid, pressuring, man-to-man defense. They have a great foundation of making a real commitment on the defensive end, and that credit goes to coach Kruger and his staff. We want to continue that."
2) A more seasoned Anthony Marshall takes the reins
Junior guard Anthony Marshall has never had to go far to spend time at home during his UNLV career. The Vegas native and former Mojave High standout, however, got away some over the past few months in preparation for his new role.
The 6-foot-3 Marshall, who has a nearly seven-foot wingspan and is one of the roster's most explosive athletes, will move over and play point guard this season, while senior Oscar Bellfield is expected to play more off of the ball as a shooting guard.
Marshall proved in his first two years at UNLV that he can score at the rim as well as anyone but can also defend both backcourt positions and get teammates involved on offense. It makes sense, then, that he spent several weeks in Los Angeles with former UNLV standout and longtime NBA vet Marcus Banks — another Las Vegas native who in his two years as a Rebel averaged 18.1 points and 4.3 assists per game.
Banks played for Rice, too, and potentially, Marshall could produce similar — or even better — numbers. Marshall said he learned plenty from working with Banks, both on and off the floor, and being with Banks, it also got Marshall into some pretty high-level pick-up games. He also got to play some in the prestigious Drew League against NBA stars such as James Harden, Tyreke Evans and Demar Derozan.
"L.A. is a hot spot for basketball in the summertime, and I felt it would be good for me to get that experience and play against some older guys," he said. "There's still a lot of little stuff I have to work on that plays a major part in what I'm going to be doing overall (at the point), but the transition isn't bad."
One of those little things, Marshall said, is getting a better feel for when to try to score and when to set someone else up. Marshall, one of the team's hardest workers, will surely force himself to find that balance.
The move to the point for Marshall just makes sense. He'll have to rely less on his streaky jumper and will instead do most of his scoring by attacking the basket. Also, he has natural leadership qualities that were visible over the past two seasons but couldn't be displayed comfortably at all times with Tre'Von Willis's presence as the team's emotional alpha dog.
3) Mike Moser has a chip on his shoulder … er, jersey
Not long after UCLA transfer Mike Moser arrived in Las Vegas last summer, he went to play ball in an open gym session. Over his shoulder, he heard some people talking about him.
"I remember I walked in and some guys were like, 'That's the kid from UCLA, but he only averaged like 4.3 minutes a game,'" he recalled.
And that's how he settled on No. 43 for the UNLV jersey that he's patiently waited a year to don.
The funny thing is that in his lone year playing for the Bruins, the once highly touted recruit actually played 4.7 minutes per game, but it's not the exact number that matters. For Moser, it's about proving his doubters wrong.
Moser admitted that he carries a chip on his shoulder from his time spent watching from Ben Howland's bench, and given how good he's looked on the practice floor since arriving in Vegas, many wonder how that was ever the case.
At 6-foot-8, Moser already has an NBA-ready body to go along with a smooth outside jumper, quick and explosive leap and the ability to score in a variety of ways off the dribble.
Word has spread quickly, too. In turn, that has created plenty of buzz surrounding Moser as he slides into the power forward spot left vacant by fellow UCLA transfer Chace Stanback, who will play small forward as a senior this season.
He said that the best revenge for his rough experiences already in college hoops is to just help the Rebels win as many games as possible. If piles of wins do come, he'll likely have plenty to do with them, as saying that he could be one of the Rebels' best players from Day 1 isn't much of a stretch.
"A lot of these people probably haven't seen me play, but the hype is there," he said. "I guess I've got to live up to it now that it's there."
4) When Stacey Augmon talks, they definitely listen
As far as player development goes, what might be most interesting to watch is how the UNLV big men come along while working with assistant coach Stacey Augmon.
The group he's worked with so far individually during team workouts — Moser, junior Quintrell Thomas, sophomore Carlos Lopez and senior Brice Massamba — didn't need Wikipedia to know his résumé, which includes a national championship as a Rebel in 1990, a 15-year NBA career as a player and a stint in the league as an assistant.
To this point, whenever Augmon chimes in in the middle of a drill or in a team huddle, everyone's ears tend to immediately perk up without him needing to raise his voice much. He commands the players' respect because he's been where they're all striving to go.
"The first thing is he brings great credibility to our staff because of the playing career he had, but it's so much more than that, because of the experience he got as an NBA assistant for four years," Rice said. "The second part is he's a really good communicator and he really has a passion for skill development."
Reggie Smith Dunks
5) When Reggie Smith is eligible, he will fly
It's fitting that the first game midyear Marquette transfer Reggie Smith will play at UNLV will come on Dec. 17 in his hometown, when UNLV takes on Illinois at the United Center in Chicago.
And though it might take him a few games to shake the rust off, expect him to be a highlight waiting to happen at all times.
His listing at 6-foot might be a bit generous, but he can play above the rim like a guy who is 6-foot-7 thanks to a vertical leap of more than 40 inches. One example came two weeks ago at a team workout, when on a 2-on-1 fast break, he took a lob pass from Bellfield and threw down a vicious one-handed slam on the 6-foot-11 Lopez.
Oddly, Smith is probably a better fit for the offense UNLV will employ under Rice than had he ended up playing for Kruger. With his speed and off-the-charts athleticism, he was meant to play in transition, which is probably why he started his career at Marquette.
Smith still has some areas to improve on, most notably finding consistency with his jumper. But he'll likely catch a few opponents sleeping as a spark off of the bench, and could be responsible for several momentum-changing plays along the way.