Friday, Aug. 3, 2012 | 2 a.m.
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From the moment the 2011-12 season ended, when a furious rally against Colorado came up short and UNLV lost its fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament game, the focus turned to 2012-13.
What would coach Dave Rice and his staff be capable of accomplishing in year two?
The final answer to that is several months away, but the early returns are positive. Top-flight players — kids who look capable of taking Rice’s running style to another level — joined the program seemingly every week this offseason.
And by a stroke of luck, in a year in which UNLV adds just as many new eligible players as it returns, Rice and the staff get a sneak peek at how those pieces will fit together with an exhibition tour in Canada.
“It comes at an absolutely perfect time,” Rice said in May.
Now that time is almost here.
Practice for the trip starts Saturday morning and runs for two weeks leading into the first leg of the Rebels’ tour, which takes them north to Ottawa and then Montreal. They will play two games in each city.
But for Rice, the best part about the trip will be over before the team even boards its flight. The practices, all nine of them, may prove invaluable to coming up with a positive answer to that year-two question.
For starters, Rice will have more players on the floor for the practices than he will for the games. Sophomore transfer Khem Birch can practice with the team but won’t be able to play in his native Canada because he’s not eligible until after the fall semester. Junior transfer Roscoe Smith can practice, but he’s still waiting to hear from the NCAA on his hardship waiver. If he’s eligible to play this season, he can play in Canada; if he must redshirt, he will be sidelined with Birch. There’s no timetable for the NCAA’s decision.
Then there’s incoming freshman Anthony Bennett, who’s still at home in Toronto after recently being cleared by the NCAA. Rice said Bennett won’t be at practice Saturday, and although there’s a sliver of hope he could be eligible for the exhibition tour, it’s much more likely that he will suit up for the first time this fall.
So UNLV could be down three newcomers in Canada, but on the practice court it’s down only one.
These practices will be when identities are forged. Rice said he will experiment with lineups in Canada, but the days leading up to that will offer players such as incoming freshman Katin Reinhardt a great chance to get crucial feedback from coaches.
“I just want to show what I can do and see what needs to be done from me,” Reinhardt said. “Just talk to the coaches a lot and learn somewhat of a role.”
The beginnings of that have been going on during the past month, ever since most of the newcomers came to campus to take summer classes. But not all of the returners have been on campus during that stretch, and none of it has offered the time and opportunity that these practices will.
“We can’t wait to get started,” Hawkins said.
Both players used the phrase “stepping stone” when discussing the trip. As far as 2012-13 is concerned, Saturday is the first important one of those steps. It’s the moment people will look back on in March and, fairly or not, point to as the reason the team either succeeded or failed.
And really, that’s fine. Because UNLV gets to take a trip that’s fun for the involved parties and one that comes at the perfect time to help answer questions leading into the most-hyped Rebels season in about 20 years.
“Once we get them all together, it’s going to be exciting,” Marshall said.
Considering the anticipation for a season that’s still a couple of months from officially starting, that’s an understatement.