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Birch returns to lead re-tooling Runnin' Rebels at No. 19
This preview and more on UNLV and the Mountain West are available in the Athlon Sports 2013-14 College Basketball Preseason Annual. The magazine is available online or on newsstands everywhere.
No. 19 UNLV Facts & Figures
Last season: 25-10 (10-6 Mountain West)
Postseason: NCAA Round of 64
Coach: Dave Rice (51-19 at UNLV)
Mountain West projection: Second
Postseason projection: NCAA Round of 32
Now, the question is: Can Rice keep the momentum going in Year 3 despite a number of key losses?
In addition to Bennett, the Rebels must move forward without three other starters — point guard Anthony Marshall, shooting guard Katin Reinhardt and forward Mike Moser. Overall, six of the team’s top eight scorers from a squad that went 25–10 and lost to California in the Round of 32 have moved on. But Rice remains optimistic his team can return to the NCAAs for the seventh time in eight years.
“It’s always difficult to replace guys who have experience,” Rice says. “But we’re very pleased with the guys we have coming in and development of our returning guys.”
The slippery slope of recruiting a rare talent like Bennett is only being able to keep him around for one year. Still, Rice believes it was a win-win for the Rebels. “Anthony Bennett was terrific for us as a freshman,” Rice says. “He’ll be a great representative for our program and will help us with our recruiting in terms of being able to say we had the No. 1 draft pick.”
Bennett’s good friend and fellow Canadian import Khem Birch returns at forward after earning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year honors as a sophomore. In league games, the 6-9 Birch averaged 3.0 blocks per game and shot 53.8 percent from the floor.
Junior Roscoe Smith, a hard-nosed defender and rebounder who started on UConn’s 2011 national title team as a freshman, and sophomore Savon Goodman, a high-energy performer who scored 61 points and grabbed 23 rebounds in a summer league game in July, likely will join Birch up front.
Carlos Lopez-Sosa, a 6-11 senior, Christian Wood, a highly recruited 6-10 freshman forward from nearby Findlay Prep, and athletic 6-9 redshirt freshman Demetris Morant add quality size and depth.
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Rice’s first order of business will be finding a replacement for Marshall, who led the Mountain West in assists and finished second on the team in scoring. The leading candidates to start are Deville Smith, a transfer from Southwest Mississippi Community College described by Rice as “a pass-first point guard who is lightening quick,” and 6-6 Jelan Kendrick, a former McDonald’s All-American from Indian Hills Community College who has the versatility to play several positions for the Rebels.
Two other players in the point guard mix are sophomore Daquan Cook, who saw limited time as a backup to Marshall, and highly touted freshman combo guard Kendall Smith.
The top returning player in the backcourt is junior Bryce Dejean-Jones, a solid scorer who Rice believes is “as good a perimeter defender as there is in the league.”
Kevin Olekaibe is also a potential contributor on the perimeter. A three-year starter for league rival Fresno State, Olekaibe moved back to his hometown of Las Vegas to be closer to his ailing father. He is eligible to practice with the Rebels this season and has petitioned the NCAA for a waiver to play right away.
Freshman Dantley Walker, the top prep scorer in Nevada state history, joins the team after serving a two-year LDS Church mission but will likely redshirt.
Two junior college transfers with prior Division I experience, point guard Deville Smith (Mississippi State) and combo guard Jelan Kendrick (Memphis and Ole Miss), are being counted on to provide immediate help in the backcourt. Roscoe Smith, a transfer who started for two years at Connecticut, and freshman Christian Wood will play key roles in the frontcourt. Redshirt freshman Demetris Morant adds quality depth in the post, while true freshman Kendall Smith has the versatility to help at both guard spots. The Rebels could get a big boost in the backcourt if senior Kevin Olekaibe is granted his eligibility waiver by the NCAA.
Factoid: 2. UNLV has produced two No. 1 overall NBA Draft picks (Larry Johnson, Anthony Bennett) since 1991. Duke (Elton Brand, Kyrie Irving) and Kentucky (John Wall, Anthony Davis) are the only other schools to match that number during that span.
It can be argued that no team in the Mountain West lost as many key players as the Rebels. But this is still a deep, talented and versatile squad capable of returning to the NCAA Tournament. How long it takes Rice to get the newcomers to mesh with talented returnees like Dejean-Jones and Birch will be the key. The non-conference schedule, which includes early home games with Arizona State and Illinois and a road date at Arizona, is challenging, especially for a team with so many new pieces.
*Photo Courtesy of UNLV Athletics
2013-14 Preseason Top 25
25. Wichita State