Wednesday, May 16, 2012 | 2 a.m.
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- Addition of Bennett puts UNLV firmly in national spotlight next season
- UNLV among the final two choices for Findlay Prep forward Anthony Bennett
- Findlay Prep’s Anthony Bennett cuts Florida from his list, visits UNLV
- Findlay Prep’s Anthony Bennett now the biggest recruiting target in the country
- All UNLV coverage
Anthony Bennett made it official Tuesday.
Bennett, a 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward at Henderson’s Findlay Prep, signed a letter of intent to take his skills approximately 12 miles north to UNLV’s campus. He’s the third Pilot graduate to make that trip, joining recent grad Brice Massamba and junior Carlos Lopez.
But neither of those recruits were close to Bennett’s stature. Both Massamba and Lopez were three-star prospects on an evaluating scale of five stars. Bennett is a consensus top-10 player, the top-ranked power forward in the country and the highest-ranked recruit at UNLV since Larry Johnson transferred from Odessa College in 1989.
"We are excited to have Anthony Bennett join our program,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said in a statement. "He is a winner whose versatility allows him to make plays from multiple spots on the floor. He is an explosive scorer, excellent rebounder and terrific passer. Anthony is a great teammate and has a tremendous basketball background."
Bennett is the type of “local” signee Rebels fans have been hoping for since 2006, when UNLV booster and former power forward Cliff Findlay created his namesake school, which isn’t really a school at all.
Most Las Vegas sports fans are familiar with Findlay Prep’s story. For the uninitiated, the Pilots attend class at the Henderson International School and compete all over the country under the Findlay moniker against other prep academies. This year they won their third national title in the last four years.
The players — this year, coach Michael Peck had 12 kids on the roster — live together in a house that’s within walking distance of the school. They come from around the globe to put in a year or two of hard work under a microscope and then take off for a Division I scholarship. In addition to Bennett, this year’s class includes kids going to Ohio State (Amedeo Della-Valle), Arizona (Brandon Ashley) and Oregon (Dominic Artis), among others.
The situation makes plenty of people uncomfortable, including Eddie Bonine, the executive director of the Nevada Interscholastic Athletic Association.
“Findlay is a basketball academy,” Bonine told The Daily back in February. “The last frontier of virgin sports is high school athletics. What’s going on here, it doesn’t pass the smell test.”
With Cliff Findlay’s connections to both programs, it’s not hard to see how this theory gained traction. And now that Bennett has become the first marquee Pilot to make the drive north, the whispers will only get louder.
Any explicit connection between the two programs, of course, would be an NCAA violation. And no, Peck says over and over to anyone who will listen, he does not steer his players to UNLV, where he was the team’s video coordinator before taking over at Findlay in 2007. Selfishly, he said, he likes it when some players stick around because then he can continue watching them develop and mature as players and as people. But more than that, he wants them to go to a college that makes them happy and, in a lot of cases, gives them a chance to make money playing basketball.
For the majority of Findlay’s existence, UNLV hasn’t fit that bill, and the Pilots know it. The Mountain West Conference hasn’t offered the prestige or national cache of traditional powers in major conferences.
“Kids are in tune with that, and it matters to them,” Peck said.
A top-10 recruit, Joseph included UNLV in his final five and made the drive north for an official visit. Joseph committed to Texas and now plays for the San Antonio Spurs, but his consideration of staying in the desert changed the point of view for Findlay’s other top recruits.
“They saw that that’s a cool thing now. ‘I’m not going to get laughed at if I look at UNLV,'” Peck said. “(Bennett) only adds to that.”
Location is UNLV’s obvious advantage with Findlay kids. But if you take the Pilot coaches at their word — and in six seasons they have yet to give you reason not to — it’s really the Rebels’ only advantage that doesn’t change year-to-year. Peck works hard to make sure his kids look at coaching style, possible playing time and their overall comfort with the campus. Those change for each kid every year.
This year, Findlay and UNLV look like the perfect match many want them to be. First, there’s Bennett. And in the class of 2013, forward Christian Wood (No. 55) has already committed and guard Nigel Williams-Goss (No. 39) is still considering the Rebels after backing out of his original commitment when Lon Kruger left for Oklahoma.
The conference affiliation and lack of television exposure are still knocks against the Rebels, but Rice is implementing a fast-paced style that excites kids. And after this season, Rice will likely send at least Moser and possibly Bennett to the NBA early, another appealing idea for top recruits.
If Bennett succeeds and leaves for the NBA after one or two seasons, Rice will have the full attention of any future Pilot. And as long as the Rebels have success, UNLV will be a legitimate option.
But that’s all it is: an option. What’s right for Bennett — a shy kid who gets to play with his friend, Birch — may not be right for the next top-10 kid to play for Findlay.
But make no mistake, Rice has made UNLV relevant to the Pilots in ways his predecessor never could.