UNLV basketball:

The Perfect Storm: Rebels coaching staff and fans play their cards right to get Bennett

UNLV coaches gave Bennett his space, while Rebels sophomore Khem Birch did his own recruiting on his AAU teammate

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Christopher DeVargas

Findlay Prep’s Anthony Bennett before a ceremony March 21, 2012, to honor his selection to the McDonald’s All-American team.

Bennett picks UNLV

KSNV coverage of Findlay Prep star's decision to go to UNLV, May 13, 2012.

Anthony Bennett isn’t like most top recruits.

He didn’t go on national TV — or any TV for that matter — to announce his decision. He would never dream of cutting a school logo into his hair for a big reveal. Not his style.

On Saturday, after a long recruiting process that finished with a month as the nation’s highest-rated uncommitted player, Findlay Prep’s Bennett kept it simple. After deciding to make a verbal commitment to UNLV over Oregon, he informed the concerned parties, including Findlay coach Mike Peck, sent out a tweet and stepped away to let the reactions fall where they may.

“Anthony’s kind of an introvert, he’s not a real social guy who’s going to be in the middle of all this,” Peck said. “He doesn’t care too much for all the attention.”

In Las Vegas, where Bennett will stay to continue his basketball career, that attention is going to be hard to avoid now that he’s boosted the Rebels to a possible top-10 ranking. He’s the seventh-rated overall recruit, according to Rivals.com, and fills a big need for a team that needed to improve rebounding and post scoring.

UNLV hasn’t always been able to keep Vegas talent in Vegas. Just this year, top recruits Shabazz Muhammad (UCLA), Rosco Allen (Stanford), Ben Carter (Oregon) and Winston Shepard (San Diego State) went elsewhere along the West Coast. The first three all turned down offers from UNLV.

But with Bennett, Rebels coach Dave Rice and his staff understood their target and put together a recruiting plan that ultimately paid off with the highest-rated commit since Larry Johnson.

“They kind of did it the old-school way,” Peck said. “… They didn’t hound him. They made it very clear, ‘We want you in the worst way, you’ve got to know that … but nonetheless, we’re not going to try to force-feed you UNLV and begin irritating you.’ ”

While the coaching staff played it cool, UNLV fans took it to the next level by attending Findlay games in droves, dressed in red and cheering him on. They created signs, Twitter accounts and jerseys that let Bennett know just how much he’d be appreciated around campus.

Then there was the Khem Birch factor, which may turn out to the most important element in this whole thing.

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UNLV trainer Dave Tomchek and recent transfer Khem Birch chat as the Rebels take on TCU Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012 at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV won the game 101-78.

Birch came to UNLV from Pittsburgh last January. He’s a former McDonald’s All-American, just like Bennett. They played together in Canada for CIA Bounce, one of the country’s top AAU teams.

When you’re an introvert like Bennett, finding friends on a college campus isn’t always the easiest thing. Nowhere would he be able to find a better confidant than Birch.

And other than Brampton, Ontario, Las Vegas is home. He has been at Findlay for two years, and Peck’s door will always be open even when Bennett is playing for Rice.

Peck offered this analogy: Imagine you’re about to run a mile race, and someone offers you a half-mile head start. That’s the kind of situation Bennett will have with getting acclimated to college life.

“The more things that you can eliminate as new or different, the more you can focus on being a basketball player,” Peck said.

This was far from a sure thing for the Rebels, though. Even a couple of weeks ago they seemed to be trailing power-schools Kentucky and Florida.

Then last weekend, on back-to-back days, Bennett cut the Gators and Wildcats. The latter set off a firestorm with some particularly vulgar Kentucky fans attacking Bennett on Twitter. And in the eyes of a lot of people, that only confirmed that he made the right decision.

When it came down to the final week with just UNLV and Oregon, Rebels fans began rehearsing the Canadian national anthem in preparation for next year. They were sure Bennett would stay ‘home,’ and he was comfortable with the decision to do so.

Now, as far as that attention goes, Bennett ought to relish any moments of anonymity he has this summer.

“He’s got the city in a state of excitement,” Peck said.

That’s putting it mildly, and it’s only May.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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  1. I'm really excited to see what this team can do. It's too long until the bball season starts up again...NBA finsals just don't do justice.

  2. Any chance that Bennett changes his mind? Why only a verbal commit?

  3. @vegasbike, he needs to sign his letter of intent and will likely do so today (Monday) or tomorrow. Admin offices likely didn't stay open over the weekend in hopes he decided. But to answer your question, yes he could technically change his mind but after telling other coaches he's chosen UNLV it is very unlikely.