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Rebels add more talent, but system still flawed

The talent keeps coming for UNLV basketball, keeps believing in the vision Dave Rice has created, keeps talking about a style of play that if the Rebels ever get around to implementing, just might produce the sort of success a third-year coaching staff insists is attainable.

Rashad Vaughn is the latest high-profile recruit to pledge his commitment to the Rebels, saying on Tuesday he will sign with UNLV and join an already star-heavy class that is now considered to be among the top five nationally.

“Me and my family decided this was best for me,” Vaughn told a CBS Sports Network audience. “It was a tough decision, a long journey. At the end of the day, I had to do what was best for me and my family.”

He is the bluest of blue chippers, a Findlay Prep guard ranked by some as the nation’s No. 7 recruit. I’m not entirely sure which rankings are more legitimate than others, and if most of those attaching stars to a player’s resume know the difference between a back screen and banana cut, but the consensus on Vaughn is that he will have an immediate and positive impact with the Rebels.

Which probably means, among other things, he can make a jump shot beyond 15 feet.

This is the proven part of Rice and his staff. Recruiting. Selling a blueprint. Working a living room. Convincing some of the nation’s best prep talents that UNLV plays fast and pushes tempo and presses others into mistakes. That team goals should annually include Final Fours and opportunities at a national championship.

In time, maybe.

In time, if Rice continues to sign the sort of recruiting class he will welcome for the 2014-15 season, how he talks off the court about the Rebels might translate onto it.

In time, UNLV might be so ridiculously talented at all spots, it won’t be able to help itself from playing as Rice insists it can.

That time hasn’t come.

It’s not close.

The “pro-style offense that lets guards get up and down the court,” that Vaughn spoke about at UNLV ranks 186th nationally in scoring and 226th in shooting, and sort of makes you think he was mistaking the Rebels for Iowa State or Kansas or just about any other program that recruited him.

UNLV doesn’t run. Not really. Not close to what recruits talk about when choosing the Rebels. Its offense is pedestrian at best most nights.

Perception keeps beating reality in this realm.

Hey, whatever gets you the kid.

Recruiting is a tough, dirty, laborious, painstaking part of a coach’s life, filled with enablers and hangers-on and other unscrupulous characters who attach themselves to players and in turn become an unwanted but necessary part of the process for those chasing the most talented kids.

Which will make it interesting to see how Rice addresses, when he can officially talk about Vaughn, the case of Pete Kaffey, who followed the player to Las Vegas from Minneapolis and — presto! — landed a gig as a Findlay Prep assistant coach.

In December, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune wrote an in-depth story on, among other things, what most labeled a package deal for Vaughn and Kaffey to end up at Findlay, and a first-degree aggravated robbery case Kaffey reportedly pleaded guilty to in 2004 that involved a victim being pistol-whipped.

How much influence Kaffey will continue to have over Vaughn once the player enrolls at UNLV is unknown. But it will be an interesting watch, for sure.

For now, today, Vaughn picking the Rebels is important and positive news for Rice’s program. There are worse things than trending on Twitter for having one of the country’s top recruiting classes.

But what it means in November is anyone’s guess.

Preparation and game plans and on-court adjustments are areas where Rice and his staff haven’t proven themselves. It’s not wrong to suggest that of UNLV’s eight losses this season, only once (against Arizona) did the opponent own superior talent.

San Diego State?

The only difference between the Rebels and Aztecs on the floor is a fifth-year point guard (Xavier Thames). But one team is ranked fifth nationally and playing for a No. 3 NCAA Tournament seed and another is a Mountain West Tournament loss come March away from the National Invitation Tournament or College Basketball Invitational.

Why is that?

Still early in its tenure, UNLV has a coaching staff that has proven to be terrific recruiters, but also has shown that having good players doesn’t in any way guarantee you won’t be out-coached by the UC Santa Barbaras and Colorado States and Air Forces of the world.

Tuesday, however, was a good day for the Rebels. A very good day.

“I feel we can do something special next year,” Vaughn said. “With the pieces we have and team we’re going to have, I feel we can win a national championship.”

UNLV can certainly recruit well enough to put itself in such a position.

It’s the other part that still needs to be validated.

As in a lot.

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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