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USA Basketball an assist for UNLV recruiting

They stood in the doorway, as interested in the process as any media member or invited guest who packed the Mendenhall Center on Tuesday.

Maybe even more so.

They stood in the doorway and dreamed the dream they have had for years.

UNLV’s basketball program under coach Dave Rice has only become stronger annually when it comes to the oh-so-significant game of recruiting, when it comes to selling all that the program can offer a player whose long-term goals include an opportunity to compete at the game’s highest level.

Which is pretty much everyone Rice recruits.

USA Basketball returned to Las Vegas this week for about as casual and stress-free a minicamp as you could imagine when gathering 34 of the NBA’s best players. It was nothing more than a glorified shoot-around for two days, and the odds much of anything physical will take place during tonight’s Blue-White scrimmage rival that of there being no dunks.

The Rio Olympics are still a year away, and it’s obvious USA Basketball officials are intent on keeping players healthy as another NBA season looms. Mike Krzyzewski probably gave more interviews the past few days than actual coaching of his players. It was that relaxed an atmosphere.

“Noncontact, noncompetitive,” Krzyzewski said. “We as a staff have learned how to coach them and how not to over-coach them. This is a good example of not coaching them at all.”

An hour earlier, Rice spoke from a hallway adjacent to the practice courts, several of his players gathering inside that doorway as the likes of James Harden and Kevin Durant and Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul competed in drills.

They watched every dribble, soaked in every pass.

“It’s very important for our program to have (USA Basketball) here,” Rice said. “Every kid across the country who gets recruited has a goal of playing in the NBA. We continue to have the best players in the NBA coming to our practice facility, and that’s a big deal. From a branding standpoint, not just for our basketball program but for UNLV as an institution, it’s important.

“This is a global endeavor, and every time a LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony is interviewed by someone like CNN, the name UNLV is right there behind them. That’s huge.”

Rice’s players were taking a break from a weightlifting session downstairs, from one of the most important parts of their weekly schedule when preparing for the season. UNLV needs to get a whole lot stronger, both below the neck and between the ears.

There is nothing like a dose of hard reality for a college player than to see up close those physiques that define NBA stars.

Strength and conditioning at the college level is a year-round endeavor now.

It’s part of one’s lifestyle in the NBA.

“We have to get physically and mentally tougher,” Rice said. “We were in a lot of games last year that we just didn’t finish. We have to get over the top in those. It’s important for our guys to walk in here and see how big NBA players are. They are obviously extremely talented and athletic, but they’re also physically strong. If you’re going to have an opportunity to play at that level, you better be strong.”

Rice has sold many things when recruiting. Las Vegas. An opportunity to play immediately. The fact that of the two freshmen who have opted to leave school early and enter the NBA Draft during his tenure, one became the No. 1 overall selection (Anthony Bennett) and the other a first-round pick at No. 17 (Rashad Vaughn).

These are facts the next high school star trimming his list of potential college choices wants to hear. He also likes to know that should he choose UNLV, there is a great chance he will encounter NBA players on campus, either through the summer league or when USA Basketball reports for camp.

Rice likes his current group, likes how it is meshing, likes how several new faces are engaging with those returning ones. Likes the potential. Likes the promise.

It was almost certain UNLV would be scheduled to oppose UCLA in a first-round game of the Maui Invitational on Nov. 23, considering the event’s preference for offering a TV matchup with West Coast ties to close out its opening day.

It will be the first opportunity, given UNLV’s first three games are home against Cal Poly, New Mexico Highlands and Southern Utah, for Rice to see if all the weight training has paid off.

If any additional motivation is needed, it could be found in the focused stares of those UNLV players standing in a doorway this week.

“Some of the things we always promote throughout the recruiting process is that USA Basketball is here, NBA summer league is here, all the NBA players that are here during the year,” Rice said. “It’s a high priority for kids to come to a place where they know if they play well, there will be opportunities at the next level.”

Given those recruits who have picked UNLV, it has proved quite a successful pitch.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be a heard on “Seat and Ed” on Fox Sports 1340 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney

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