Doolin may be key piece to UNLV puzzle

It requires the assembly of numerous small, often oddly shaped, interlocking pieces. Each one usually has a part of a picture on it; when complete, a jigsaw puzzle produces a finished product.

As July and its oppressive heat arrives in Las Vegas, the enigma that is UNLV’s basketball team — much promise, little proof — begins to take form in a middle school gym some six miles from the Thomas &Mack Center.

When the puzzle that is the Rebels of next season is finished, it’s a good bet Cody Doolin will have defined a fairly significant piece.

If an NCAA waiver grants him a final season of eligibility, his potential impact can’t be overstated.

The running system Dave Rice has sold to recruits and desired to employ hasn’t become reality in the coach’s first three seasons, and it’s no certainty Doolin’s presence will mean the Rebels will inch any closer to such an up-tempo attack.

But proven fifth-year point guards are among the most valued of players in a time when teams across the country grow younger annually. Doolin is one, as intelligent and well-spoken and savvy and knowledgeable a young man as you will meet.

I sat with him Monday evening and am pretty sure he already knows more about the Mountain West than any of its players or coaches.

What he could also add to a collection of young UNLV talent, to a lineup that should include capable and yet inexperienced bodies in freshmen such as Rashad Vaughn and Dwayne Morgan and Goodluck Okonoboh and so on is the calm amid a storm of close games in the final minutes, an unflustered temperament among the expected anxiousness of first-year players.

“I may not be the biggest or fastest or strongest, but I do think I’m a good leader who sets a good example,” Doolin said. “All the freshmen have been working really hard, and that’s the first step for any of them. Just do the best you can. They’re talented and, so far, they have been really unselfish. Play hard at the defensive end, play unselfish, play smart.

“They’re really, really good.”

That he is here, competing in the Desert Reign ProCity League while preparing for what will be his only season at UNLV, is a result of an incident that caused Doolin to leave the University of San Francisco program just four games into last season.

He isn’t big on talking about it, but enough reports surfaced from the Bay Area to know this: He and a teammate got into a scuffle during practice, after which Dons coach Rex Walters (who certainly didn’t need this incident to be considered a loon) gathered players and coaches in a circle around the two and encouraged them to fight.

“This is the first time I’ve said so, but right after it happened, I didn’t think I would play college basketball again,” Doolin said. “But then Coach Rice called me, and we really hit it off. I really like him and what he preaches to his players and the way he treats them. It has been a great experience so far.”

It’s nearly impossible to evaluate a player, much less a pass-first point guard, in a summer league where there are few possessions that include more than two swings of the ball. The only thing lacking more than ball movement is anything resembling defense. You don’t prepare for summer league by watching much film of the San Antonio Spurs.

But if the Doolin who received such positive reviews from his time at USF can emerge quickly at UNLV, the Rebels will be far better for it from their opening practice.

He could be in some ways to UNLV what Kevin Kruger was in a Sweet 16 season of 2006-07, a point guard who could score but doesn’t need to when impacting a game. Doolin was a 1,000-point scorer in three-plus seasons at USF, so the idea of hitting a big shot or two isn’t foreign to him.

Really, he just needs to help dictate pace and tempo and, yes, mood.

The 6-foot-2-inch Doolin has started 103 career games, 103 more than all those talented freshmen who will show up with recruiting stars by their names and yet zero experience at this level.

The storms will come. They do each season. They did (too) often last year.

Few can calm them like a fifth-year point guard.

“Right now, we’re all getting to know each other,” Doolin said. “From what I have seen so far, we have multiple guys who are good leaders. The best teams are those where everyone has a voice and everyone has bought in.

“We’re going to be young. It’s going to take awhile. There is no reason for panic if some of the first games don’t go as well as we would like. It’s a very long season. Just stay with it. Stay positive. We are truly a team that will get better as the season goes on. The most important thing to do is peak at the right time. Just focus on that. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Just focus on being the best we can be when conference rolls around. That’s a good goal for us.”

UNLV needs his waiver to be approved.

It needs him on the floor.

Smart and savvy can’t be overstated.

Cody Doolin could be a major piece to finishing the jigsaw puzzle.

Maybe the most important one.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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