Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Monday, March 19, 2012 | 2:01 a.m.
- The Sun's coverage of UNLV in the NCAA Tournament
- The Rebels face five major tasks this off-season for getting better in 2012-13
- UNLV’s four seniors end their careers with another early NCAA exit despite big rally
- The Rebels’ furious rally an example of what UNLV could have been this season
- All UNLV Men's Basketball Coverage
The dust has already begun to settle from the UNLV basketball team’s collapse to close the season.
The Rebels were nearly a top-10 team in opening the year with a 21-3 record, but couldn’t duplicate the favorable results down the stretch. What started out with such high hopes — remember storming the court after beating No. 1 North Carolina? — wound up being just like the past two seasons with the team coming up short.
However, not all is lost. The foundation was firmly established for the future of the program. It’s a future that looks bright.
Despite the rough ending, and all sorts of questions trying to dissect the late-season struggles, it’s pretty obvious UNLV returned to national importance. While that status didn’t result in a NCAA Tournament win, it’s a sign the program is heading in the right direction. Even the most pessimistic fan has to feel better about the state of the program, right?
Here are five reasons to be optimistic about the upcoming season:
Remove seniors Brice Massamba, Oscar Bellfield and Chace Stanback from the UNLV starting lineup, replace them with Bryce Jones on the wing, Katin Reinhardt at guard and Khem Birch (after the fall semester when the transfer is eligible) in the post, and the Rebels are instantly a more athletic, aggressive and an overall better team. Sure, losing Bellfield’s reliability and decision making in the backcourt won’t be easy to replace, but give the 6-foot-4 incoming freshman Reinhardt a few games, and you’ll realize it’s a major upgrade. All three players were top 100 recruits, including Birch in 2011 being McDonald’s All-American and Reinhardt a top-50 recruit from powerhouse Mater Dei in Southern California. The rising sophomore Jones, a 6-foot-5 wing who will take over for Stanback, is a transfer from USC who several feel is one of the program’s most talented players in two decades. He’ll have the same impact Mike Moser did this year.
Having the 6-foot-8 Moser penciled in at the four-spot is a great starting point for the upcoming season. He’s athletic, plays with passion and intensity, finds success offensively with his inside and outside game, and fits perfectly into the Rebels’ up-tempo offensive philosophies. Moser, who this season averaged 14.1 points and 10.6 rebounds per game, will likely be the league’s top returning player and a big reason why UNLV will again be a top-25 team. Moser was four times named the Mountain West Conference’s player of the week, taking the honor in consecutive weeks in late November in bursting onto the scene as one of the nation’s best. Like the Rebels’ hot start, Moser also fizzled out — if just briefly. A two-week stretch of bad performances in February — and the Rebels’ poor end to the season — will give him motivation to make improvements this offseason. Look for Moser to add bulk to his lanky 210-pound frame and fine tune other aspects of his arsenal in becoming an even more complete player.
Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins will be seniors next year, and make no doubt about it, they will be the Rebels’ unquestioned leaders. That’s a good thing because they are hard working, likable and talented. Marshall, a local product, has long been the face of the program and cherishes his role in being someone others look up to. He made tremendous strides in his game from his sophomore season to this winter and will continue to progress in potentially becoming a first-team all-league pick. Hawkins was UNLV’s unsung hero this year, typically the first player off the bench in playing several productive and quality minutes. He’s a top-notch defender, isn’t prone to mistakes and has developed a nice jump shot. It’s a pretty safe bet that both these players will be rolling up their sleeves in the offseason to ensure their final season with the scarlet and gray is a memorable one.
Dave Rice will be better next year, too
When UNLV opened the season with 21 victories in its first 24 games, rising to No. 11 in the Associated Press rankings, it was easy to forgot that the man calling the shots for the Rebels was making his head coaching debut. Dave Rice, despite the collapse to end the season, had a tremendous first season. And not just on game day. He landed top recruits in Jones, Reinhardt and Birch, embraced the community obligations associated with running a program, and didn’t flinch when dealt with the adversity of poor play. All in all, a great effort in taking the program to another level — yes, even with the first-game NCAA Tournament exit, the program took a gigantic step forward. Rice’s first go-round will serve as a learning experience for upcoming seasons, with the coach surely going to take a long look in the mirror when evaluating the season. Rice is known for his work behind the scenes in preparation and should come back next year a more versed coach.
Unbeatable at home
With Rice, a member of the 1990 national title team, calling the shots and bringing an exciting brand of fast-paced basketball back to UNLV, the scarlet and gray faithful returned to religiously following the team. There were three sellouts this year (more than the past 19 years combined) to create a true home court advantage in helping the Rebels post a perfect regular season record at the Thomas & Mack Center. The band seemed to play louder, the fans didn’t miss a word in the fight song and those crazy students were surely creative in making sure the opposition felt at a disadvantage. Welcome back, UNLV basketball. Just like the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Mack is the place to be. Don’t expect that to change next winter, giving UNLV a leg up in complete its return to prominence.