UNLV basketball:

Bennett the key to Rebels’ bid to finally move on in NCAA Tournament

A great game from the freshman forward should be enough to get UNLV into the Round of 32, where it hasn’t been since 2008

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV forward Anthony Bennett laughs during practice for their second round NCAA Tournament game against Cal Wednesday, March 20, 2013 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif.

UNLV 2013 NCAA Tournament Practice

The UNLV basketball team has their photo taken by UNLV photographer R. Marsh Starks before practice for their second round NCAA Tournament game against Cal Wednesday, March 20, 2013 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif. Launch slideshow »

Anthony Bennett and Justin Hawkins are at opposite ends of their basketball careers, though both could be playing in their final collegiate game.

Hawkins, a senior guard, is in his fourth NCAA Tournament and still searching for a victory. His future is uncertain, though don’t be surprised to one day see him on campaign posters.

Bennett, a freshman forward, is in his first and likely only collegiate postseason. Half of his time in San Jose has been spent telling new faces that no, he hasn’t decided to leave for the NBA, though junior Mike Moser said you won’t find a sane person in Las Vegas who thinks Bennett will stay.

Their extremes create a balance in the room they share in the downtown Marriott, located a short police-escorted drive away from HP Pavilion. That’s where their basketball lives will converge again Thursday when No. 5 UNLV plays No. 12 Cal at 4:27 p.m. on truTV.

It’s not fair to place the shortcomings of past Rebels teams on this one, UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “But I also think the guys who were here before can use that experience to motivate them for this experience,” he added. “And new guys can seize the opportunity of playing in their first NCAA Tournament.”

That’s what Bennett will be expected to do. More than any other player in UNLV’s pod, which also includes No. 4 Syracuse and No. 13 Montana, Bennett has the ability to decide a game for his team, win or lose.

As he waits for that moment to come, Bennett said he would kill time in his room just texting with friends and family and listening to music. And listening to his roommate.

On Tuesday night their conversation inevitably turned to the task at hand, to the reason they were in this room to begin with. That’s when the senior turned to the freshman with some advice.

“‘Be honored that you’re here in this position,’” Bennett said Hawkins told him. “‘You never know when your next chance is.’”

The recent history

Hawkins’ first chance in the NCAA Tournament came as a No. 8 seed in Oklahoma City. Those Rebels got Farokhmanesh’d two days before the Northern Iowa sharpshooter would do it again to No. 1 seed Kansas.

The next year UNLV, a No. 8 again, got run out of Tulsa, Okla., by Illinois. Last year the scene was Albuquerque, the Rebels were a No. 6 and if not for a furious rally they would have lost to Colorado by much more than four.

This UNLV team didn’t lose those games, but Hawkins and fellow senior guard Anthony Marshall were there for all of them. Those two are the first Rebels since Stacey Augmon and Chris Jeter to play in four consecutive NCAA Tournaments, but that duo enjoyed considerably more success during their run 22 years ago.

“I know the seniors can tell you, getting kicked out of the tournament in the first round isn’t fun, and over and over again just makes it worse,” said Moser, who added that last year’s early exit has been weighing on the team’s mind all year.

Hawkins said he’ll use the past as personal motivation and Marshall is very plugged in to what another Round of 64 loss would mean for his legacy at UNLV.

“This is what you work hard for,” Marshall said. “Those extra sprints, those extra shots you put up before practice and stuff like that. This is the time that it counts.”

There’s a danger to that, though. Worrying too much about the bigger picture can overwhelm the mechanizations necessary to do the one thing these guys have been trying to do over and over since they were kids: win a game.

That’s why Hawkins said leading into the game he planned to use social media less and avoid TVs tuned to ESPN, CBS or the like.

“You start hearing what other people’s comments are about yourself or other teams in the tournament and subconsciously that might play a part in how you play in the game,” Hawkins said.

The game plan

Khem Birch is the reason this rematch won’t be the same as the first meeting on Dec. 9, a one-point UNLV victory marred by Moser’s elbow injury.

Since Moser’s playing time and production vary so much game to game he’s an addition but not a guaranteed difference maker. Cal now has guard Ricky Kreklow, a Missouri transfer who missed most of the season after foot surgery, but he’s shooting less than 30 percent in a limited role.

The Rebel Room

Rebels get a rematch in NCAA Tournament

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The brackets are out and the Las Vegas Sun sports team is here to discuss UNLV's draw as the 5-seed in San Jose, Calif., and a rematch with Cal.

Birch makes this regular season rematch more palatable because he really does change how UNLV can play.

“In the paint I can contribute a lot,” Birch said.

Click to enlarge photo

UNLV guard Bryce Dejan-Jones and forward Carlos Lopez practice for their second round NCAA Tournament game against Cal Wednesday, March 20, 2013 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif.

He’s one of several Rebels making an NCAA Tournament debut who will be counted on for big contributions. He’s not nervous about it, though. The nerves left after his first couple of games in December. Ditto, said freshman Katin Reinhardt, who at almost exactly 24 hours before tip-off said he was more eager than nervous.

“If I could play right now I would,” he said.

Birch will anchor the defense in the paint, allowing the guards more freedom on the perimeter. That’s where one of the biggest individual matchups of the game will play out: Cal’s Allen Crabbe vs. Bryce Dejean-Jones, another Rebel playing in his first NCAA Tournament game. Rice said slowing Crabbe is a team job, though Dejean-Jones figures to do most of the heavy lifting.

Birch said he was confident Dejean-Jones would get through Cal’s numerous screens and stay on Crabbe better than he did the first time, when Crabbe scored 18. And after watching the film from Dec. 9, Reinhardt said he’s more confident that he can get into the lane this time and take advantage of the Golden Bears’ bigs who “like to jump.”

For Cal, coach Mike Montgomery’s plan includes defending the perimeter better — opponents are 18-for-36 on 3-pointers over the last two games — and limiting turnovers.

“We turned the ball over against Vegas for layups,” Montgomery said. “We had turnovers out front, and you can’t do that.”

Cal was on a seven-game winning streak before losing back-to-back games that ended the regular season and its Pac-12 tournament at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Certainly the Golden Bears believe they can win, though two very large Canadians stand in their way.

The first, Birch, they’ve only seen on tape. The other, Bennett, some may still be seeing in their nightmares.

The difference maker

Bennett dunk vs. Cal

The first Cal game was a sort of coming out party for Bennett. He scored a then-career high 25 points with 13 rebounds in that victory, and Moser’s injury signaled that the freshman was going to take on an even bigger role.

Asked Wednesday about the baseline drive-and-dunk he pulled off to tie the game with a minute to play, the one that made Sportscenter’s Top 10 plays, Bennett demurred.

Click to enlarge photo

UNLV forward Anthony Bennett dunks on Cal during the second half of their game Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012 at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley, Calif. UNLV won 76-75.

“I try not to talk about the past,” he said.

No, his sights are on the future, and what a bright one it seems to be. Montgomery coached the Golden State Warriors for three years before coming back to the college ranks so he knows what the NBA is looking for.

“You’re talking about a big guy that can go in and match up and bang with big people in that league defensively and maybe on the glass, and yet he can step away and shoot the ball,” Montgomery said. “… (But) after one year in college you don’t know the maturity level and what their work ethic is going to be. That’s where they get in trouble a lot when they go after these young kids, because they’re not proven; they don’t know the answers.”

That’s true of Bennett. Just look at the Mountain West finale loss against New Mexico, where his first five minutes were some of the best he’s ever played, making the final 35 all the more confounding.

March is the time college stars truly take over and seemingly carry their team into the next round. Bennett can be that guy. Thursday afternoon he will send his final messages, turn off his music and step onto the next “biggest stage” in a career that figures to see many more.

Teammates can tell him what it will be like — “Every possession is basically the last possession,” said Roscoe Smith, who won a national title at UConn — but his experience will be unique. What Bennett does with it is up to him.

When the ball tips the words from Rice or Smith or Hawkins won’t help because at that point only actions will matter. That’s what the Rebels need Bennett to truly understand.

Because as bright and prosperous as the projected top five pick's future is, nothing is guaranteed. Hawkins wasn’t guaranteed to get back to the NCAA Tournament a fourth time but he was lucky and talented enough to help make it happen.

Bennett will almost assuredly appear on another, bigger stage in the near future, maybe even on Saturday or next week. But no one can say for certain. Never underestimate life's unpredictability.

“You never know when your next chance is.”

Or if you’ll ever get one, so make it count.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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  1. Go UNLV...Best of luck on the road 2 the final 4

  2. It sounds like Montgomery is a little bitter that he can't get Bennett level talent. Like he would turn down a recruit like that because "you don't know the maturity level and what their work ethic is going to be".
    Sheesh

  3. Lets Go Rebs! Give it everything you got!

  4. Great post, Taylor. Getting all Dana O'neill on us all the sudden! Bennett will definitely be the offensive key going forward and if he isn't a factor, this team is going to struggle. The addition of Birch is going to be immense with this matchup cause Cal isn't going to see much of the paint with him clogging it up.

  5. Seeing I live in the Bay area, I will get to see them in person this afternoon. Pretty simple- if Rebels play smart (hard for them to do) and take GOOD shots (Attn Reinhardt and Jones!!), they will win. If they play like they too often do, I am afraid I will be going home disappointed yet again.

  6. Coach Rice. We know that you can recruit. I am born and raised. Thousands a year for my wife and kids to watch Reb basketball. we are all in. When will you get it together? Clock is now officially counting. Team has by all measures underachieved. Show some passion. We saw this all coming about 15 minutes in. Top 5 talent. Top 60 results. Show us more. No excuses but elite 8 next year. Shameful. So much more to say but just aweful on the bench. Win more games next year and there won't be a road game as the favorite. Darnit. Just sick. Tired of hearing the cliches. Cal was weak. Even at a road spot. Again...Don't lose to Fresno on Senior Day and you control that. command each game. WHAT a waste of talent.

  7. pretty much a no show from bennett tonight. seriously think that kid could use one more year in college.

    not saying fire rice but he is officially on the clock now. if he can't get better results next season and we still see these same mistakes and issues with next years team i'm all for dumping him and moving on. after two season he should be able to figure how to beat a zone. he's got to be able to have another option on offense once teams figure out how to take unlv out of the transition game. he should be able to get this team to play better on the road. he should be getting his players to play with more passion and heart. i shouldn't be complaining considering he just took us to two straight NCAA tournament appearance but considering he took over a team that had already been to the tournament before he got here i expect to see some improvement. he is a great recruiter but one win over UNC doesn't make him a great coach.

  8. Bennett isn't the kry to anything , never will be. He has asthma ,he's lazy, he's a terrible ball handler, and he should be out rebounding everyone but doesnt. He is a typical dumb kid who thinks he's better than he really is, he will be out of NBA in first season .

  9. Well, sure glad I went to that debacle. Bennett is so SOFT- it is a joke that this guy will be a top 5 NBA pick. As soon as Birch left in the 2nd half Cal just went right at Bennett for dunk after dunk- by a big, slow white turd.
    For all you guys who love Goodman- the guy should be playing football- he has ZERO basketball skills. I love he hustles all over the place but he couldn't throw a rock in the ocean.
    Reinhardt is brain dead- dumbest (basketball IQ wise) white guy I have seen. Human turnover.
    And Rice gets totally outcoached- again. What an embarrassment.

  10. Remember how satisfying it was to hear Moses Scurry scream when he got a rebound? I miss that kind of fire and heart and was hoping that Rice/Augmon would be able to instill that heart into this new generation of Rebels. From what I've seen so far... um, not so much.

    I'm a homer, so of course I look forward to next year and try to see the half-full glass and all that, but I have to agree with many of the comments here. Something has definitely got to change. Send the boys to boot camp fitness for a few months or something. Have them play dodgeball with baseballs when they make stupid mistakes, I don't know, do *something*. CDR wrote on a chalkboard this season "Tough. Together." That needs to be next year's marketing and lesson, IMO.

    Still love my Rebels no matter what, but this crap has got to stop.