Recruits elevate perception of Rebels

There is, in the competitive and ruthless and often bizarre world of college basketball recruiting, a method to the madness.

It is as much strategy as salesmanship, as much foresight as fortune.

Dave Rice is a big paper guy today, because when you begin putting his UNLV recruiting class on a clean white sheet, it gets more and more impressive with each push of the pen.

Rankings in May are for perception’s sake only, which might be the most important factor six months before the Rebels again play a game that matters.

That some have assigned a No. 12 national ranking to the class Rice and his assistants assembled means nothing today in the big picture of NCAA Tournament success and yet everything in how the program is recognized across the country.

“I don’t know yet how good we can be, but I do think we have addressed a lot of needs,” Rice said. “It’s exciting. I know we’re going to have a lot of versatile guys and be able to play a lot of different ways. Typically, every season ends before you’re ready for it to, and it’s hard to accept the long wait before you can start practice and play games again. The biggest thing will be how quickly we figure out how to play together and understand how hard we have to play at both ends of the floor.”

Starters could emerge from a summer trip to Canada, and rotations have a way of working themselves out as talent rises to the top. But in signing such an outstanding group of players, Rice realized that while his current team has yet to gather for a practice, its window of opportunity for great success might be smaller than some imagine.

This is a good problem to have. No. This is a great problem to have. The majority of leading players from a team that probably will find itself with a Top 10 national ranking to begin next season might be together for only a year, a price you pay for signing coveted skill, one every coach in America would gladly embrace if handed such a roster.

“We’re going to lose three seniors, and (junior) Mike Moser will likely go into the (NBA Draft) this time,” Rice said. “It wouldn’t shock me if players like (sophomore Bryce Jones and incoming freshman Anthony Bennett) also entertained thoughts of either putting their names in or coming back to school. But those are conversations you want to be having in April, because that means you won a lot of games and those guys had very good individual seasons. I’d love to have multiple discussions like that every year.

“My main focus is to always win the next game, but at the same time, you have to continue building for the future and recruiting for two years down the road. You need to have guys ready to step in and play if you happen to lose more than you first thought.”

Those conversations in April have a better chance of happening if Rice can convince what is a group of talented individuals today to play as one come November, to more often than not follow the lead of a UNLV team that ranked second nationally in assists last season, to adopt a mantra of making the extra pass and caring about the scoreboard far more than a stat sheet.

Rice thinks he has found such a player in Bennett, the McDonald’s All-American out of Findlay Prep who will arrive on campus as UNLV’s most decorated prep recruit in nearly three decades.

Rice points to the Jordan Brand Classic in April, when Bennett competed against the nation’s other top players in Charlotte, N.C.

At an event where individual games are meant to be displayed and praised, the coach saw on television a player willing to sacrifice his for the betterment of others, who while on the bench never allowed a good play by his teammates to pass without encouragement and applause.

This is the Anthony Bennett that UNLV needs.

And the Bryce Jones and the Anthony Marshall and the Mike Moser and so on. This is how all the Rebels must approach what could be a fantastic season.

“The 10 days of practice we get before (departing for Canada) will give us a good idea of how well we’ll play together,” Rice said. “You don’t really know for sure until a season starts, but I know we have recruited unselfish guys.”

When pen goes to paper, it’s an off-the-charts impressive team.

It’s also May, when perception is everything.

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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