Saturday, May 12, 2012 | 2:15 p.m.
UNLV's probable rotationAnt. Marshall, Sr, G, 6-3, 200 Justin Hawkins, Sr, G, 6-3, 190 Reggie Smith, Jr, G, 6-0, 185 Katin Reinhardt, Fr, G, 6-4, 175 Bry. Dejean-Jones, Jr, G, 6-5, 200 Mike Moser, Jr, F, 6-8, 210 Anthony Bennett, Fr, F, 6-8, 240 *Khem Birch, So, F, 6-9, 220 Carlos Lopez, Jr, F, 6-11, 215 Quintrell Thomas, Sr, F, 6-8, 245 *Eligible to play on Dec. 17
This offseason, there will be no controlling expectations. UNLV, it appears, is back in full.
Anthony Bennett, the No. 7-rated recruit in the country according to Rivals.com, made a verbal commitment Saturday after trimming his list to UNLV and Oregon last weekend. A 6-foot-7, 240-pound forward from Henderson’s Findlay Prep, Bennett fills the Rebels’ most glaring hole at power forward and adds even higher expectations for a team that will likely start the 2012-13 season in the top 20, if not the top 10.
"Staying out West & will be going to #UNLV next yr .. Appreciate everyone that supported me through all this," Bennett tweeted Saturday afternoon. Last weekend he cut Florida and Kentucky from his list of schools.
Bennett is the highest-rated prospect to choose UNLV since Larry Johnson and is the second McDonald's All-American to pick the Rebels in the past six months, joining fellow Canadian and former AAU teammate Khem Birch.
Dave Telep, who covers recruiting for ESPN.com, tweeted that the addition of Bennett moved UNLV’s class to No. 12 overall. The class also includes guards Katin Reinhardt (No. 38) and DaQuan Cook and Bishop Gorman center Demetris Morant (No. 144).
None of those three will likely affect the program this season quite like Bennett, though. After last season's disappointing end, UNLV coach Dave Rice emphasized rebounding and post offense as two of the major areas in which the team would need to improve. Bennett fits both of those perfectly.
While not especially tall, Bennett can use his body to muscle through defenders and find his way to the basket. He also has a very good mid- to long-range jumper that forces defenders to extend themselves guarding him. The biggest knock on him is that he's struggled to stay healthy, missing 19 games at Findlay last season, but when he's on the court Bennett is a force of nature the fits very well with what the Rebels are trying to do.
Not since the 1990-91 season has there been so much expected of a UNLV team before the summer. Rice proved his recruiting acumen with Reinhardt and Birch and this solidifies that reputation. Although Birch certainly deserves a lot of that credit.
Birch, who started his career at Pittsburgh, never had UNLV on his radar until he saw the Rebels defeat then-No. 1 North Carolina on national TV. Once he realized that Rice was using the running style he wanted to play in, Birch came to Vegas and eventually started telling his friend that he should stay put.
"I’ve been here for two years already. Everyone out here supports me," Bennett told Scout.com about his decision.
Birch is set to become eligible in mid-December, but until then Bennett will coexist with Rebels big men Carlos Lopez, Quintrell Thomas and Mike Moser, although Moser will be playing more of a small forward role on the perimeter this season. Because of his shooting ability, Bennett may fill that small forward role as well.
Once Birch is in that mix, UNLV will have arguably the deepest front court in the nation. You could even add in Morant, who's leaping ability is second to none, but he may be a redshirt candidate because of the Rebels' considerable depth.
Combine that with the guard play and leadership from seniors Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins, and it's easy to forecast big things from this team, which is exactly what UNLV fans on Twitter did with their afternoon. Nothing short of the Elite Eight will be enough, and a title isn't out of the picture, they say.
While predictions in Vegas have always been bold, the addition of Bennett certainly gives them more merit. In just more than a year on the job, Rice has seemingly returned UNLV to the stature at which he left it as a player.
Last year's team finished 26-9, including an NCAA Tournament loss to Colorado. The four departing players from that squad — Oscar Bellfield, Chace Stanback, Brice Massamba and Kendall Wallace — graduated on Saturday, which turned out to be a perfect afternoon to celebrate achievements of the past present and future.
With Bennett in the fold, UNLV still has one scholarship open for this season, which it may or may use. If it does, potential targets include 6-foot-6 forward Savon Goodman (No. 72) from Philadelphia and 6-foot-8 UConn transfer Roscoe Smith, who would be eligible immediately and have two years remaining.