Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, March 21, 2013 | 2 a.m.
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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 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.
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.
“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.