Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012 | 2:05 a.m.
Las Vegas Sun reporter Taylor Bern and Ray Brewer talk about the UNLV basketball team at the halfway point of their season. At 16-2 overall, the No. 12 ranked Rebels have exceeded expectations. But, can they keep it going?
- UNLV players confident stellar play will continue in second half of the season
- Some important dates for the remainder of the UNLV season
- These five UNLV players could impact the rest of the season
- UNLV set for Mendenhall Center grand opening on Jan. 19
- Pittsburgh transfer forward Khem Birch commits to UNLV
- UNLV basketball moves up to No. 12 in both the AP and coaches’ polls
- 2011-12 UNLV Men's Basketball Schedule
- All UNLV Men's Basketball Coverage
I should have put my cellphone on silent.
In the middle of interviewing UNLV basketball coach Dave Rice with a group of reporters in November, my cellphone rang. I couldn’t hit the silent button quickly enough. The call interrupted the coach in the middle of a sentence.
Rice politely asked if I needed to take it. He was unfazed, like he has been all season in leading UNLV to a 16-2 overall record and No. 12 national ranking. I told him it was my wife — and that I’d call her back. If she had called the previous week, the coach said jokingly, I would have talked to her right then.
It’s easy to see his logic.
It was the Monday UNLV upset then No. 1 North Carolina in their signature win of the season, and the practice was being covered by virtually every media outlet in Las Vegas. UNLV basketball, for all intents and purposes, was officially back.
Sure, the Rebels reached the Sweet 16 in 2007 and had shown flashes of returning to the national radar under their previous coach, Lon Kruger. But defeating a perennial powerhouse on national television was being billed as a significant turning point in returning the program to its glory days of more than 20 years ago.
That was just the beginning.
The Rebels, with the exception of a few hiccups in early December, are exceeding even the most optimistic fans’ expectations. And there’s no reason to doubt it will continue in the second half of the season, which starts Saturday with the Mountain West Conference opener at San Diego State, and in years to come.
Sure, the victories on the court — such as tough wins at UC Santa Barbara and Hawaii, or blowing out Cal at home — have been impressive in the short term, but it was a victory off the court that shows the Rebels could be in the spotlight for years to come.
Welcome, Khem Birch.
Birch, a talented 6-foot-9 power forward, transferred last Monday from Pittsburgh to UNLV, a major score in recruiting for Rice. Birch last year was a high school McDonald’s All-American, and his decision to play at UNLV brings an instant return on the Rebels’ hot start and gives them credibility on the recruiting trail. UNLV’s last McDonald’s All-Americans were Larry Johnson and Elmore Spencer during the Final Four years.
Rice and his staff had no previous ties to Birch. The fact that Birch was even open to the conversation speaks volumes about how the program is viewed nationally. Its No. 12 ranking is the highest the Rebels have been ranked since 1992-93.
Fittingly, Findlay Prep’s Anthony Bennett and Bishop Gorman High’s Shabazz Muhammad, two consensus top 15 recruits for the class of 2012, both list hometown UNLV in their final five choices. And that’s not because UNLV is the local school — a claim you could easily argue was accurate three months ago, when the expectations were to make the NCAA Tournament and hopefully win one game. It’s because UNLV plays an exciting brand of basketball and is loading up on talent. It’s because it is the best program on the West Coast.
Now, with the first-year coach producing results of a savvy veteran, it’s a different game, and UNLV basketball is again a major player.
The sky is the limit for the rest of the season and in years to come.
And for the rest of the season, I’ll keep my phone on vibrate.