Thursday, March 22, 2012 | 2:05 a.m.
The UNLV basketball team is still in the mix to sign two of the nation’s most coveted five-star recruits for the class of 2012 with its last open scholarship.
Both players — Bishop Gorman High wing Shabazz Muhammad and Findlay Prep forward Anthony Bennett — said Wednesday at a ceremony to honor their selection to the McDonald’s All-American game they are seriously considering hometown UNLV.
The 6-foot-6 Muhammad, the consensus No. 1 overall recruiting prospect and the Naismith High School Boys Player of the Year, said his decision would come on April 11 — the first day of the spring signing period which runs through May 16.
“Coach (Dave) Rice is a great guy and he’s bringing in a lot of good players,” said Muhammad, who is also considering Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and UCLA. “I’m looking at them hard.”
“This is a lifetime decision for me. I have to make sure I make the right decision,” he continued. “I’m still being patient with it. The process is going good right now. April 11 is when I will announce it.”
The 6-foot-7, 230-pound Bennett, who is also considering Kentucky, Florida, Oregon and Washington, said his decision would come in mid-April after he plays in the Jordan Brand Classic.
“For sure, I’m considering UNLV. They are right here in my backyard,” said Bennett, who Rivals.com ranks as the nation’s seventh overall prospect. “All those fans are always showing me how much they want me to come.”
Dave Rice and his staff aren’t the only ones recruiting Bennett. Khem Birch, a midyear transfer from Pitt and one of Bennett’s close friends from their playing days in Canada, calls Bennett multiple times each week to pitch him on UNLV. Bennett doesn’t hide his desire to play alongside his friend — the 6-foot-9 Birch last year was a McDonald’s All-American.
“He is a real cool guy. We are real close,” Bennett said of Birch. “Hopefully, everything works out and I get to play with him. If it doesn’t, we’ll still be cool. We’ll still be friends.”
While UNLV hasn’t had much success in securing top-notch talent from powerhouse Findlay Prep, the Henderson area program that plays a national schedule, Bennett would definitely break the trend. Despite missing about two months with a leg injury, Bennett averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds per game.
“One thing we hammer home with our guys is the level of comfort and Anthony is familiar with this community,” Findlay Prep coach Mike Peck said. “When our players do go to college, wherever it is, it is a new environment. They have to adjust and get used to the campus, the city and the people.
“Being here two years, it is nothing new,” he continued. “I don’t know if it will be a deciding factor, but it will help.”
UNLV’s opening game departure last week from the NCAA Tournament and its struggles to end the season won’t be a factor in the decision, both players said.
“UNLV has always been in (consideration) since Day 1,” said Muhammad, who averaged 29 points and 10 rebounds per game this winter in leading Gorman to the state championship and is arguably the most celebrated player in state history. “I have a top 5 now and UNLV is in it. Talking with coach Rice and coach Hutson (assistant coach, Justin), they are good guys. Even though they lost early in the tournament, it doesn’t (change) my decision on them. They are still in there.”
Brandon Ashley, an Arizona commit, was also honored during Wednesday’s McDonald’s event. The 6-foot-8 Ashley is the nation’s No. 13 overall prospect, averaging 16 points and nine rebounds per game this year.
“This is one of these things you dream about your entire life,” Ashley said. “As my career has progressed, I definitely wanted to be a McDonald’s All-American. To have it finally come true, it truly is a blessing. I am honored.”
The McDonald’s game is March 28 at the United Center in Chicago.