- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: UNLV.
1. Are the Runnin' Rebels officially back? Yes, I'd say so -- and I mean that literally.
After all, for all the solid success of the Lon Kruger era, his teams were more about defense, and keeping turnovers low, and substance over style. His squads didn't get up and down; they worked best in the half court. Which is all well and good. No judgments here, man. But UNLV fans, those raised on the high-flying Jerry Tarkanian glory days (when amazing posters like this were not only en vogue but truthful) grew up with higher expectations. They want a little style, too.
That's what first-year coach Dave Rice -- a product of the Tarkanian era -- brought in 2011-12. Or tried to, anyway. Last season's UNLV team was good, not great, with an offense that ranked No. 71 in the country in adjusted efficiency, per KenPom.com. The defense was better (No. 33), and the Rebels had a pretty solid season. They finished the regular season 26-9, went 9-5 in conference play, and bowed out of the NCAA tournament after a Round of 64 loss to a hot Colorado team.
What was most interesting about last year's Rebels is how much Rice sped them up. This was a promise he made at his introduction last spring, and he kept it. In 2011, UNLV's adjusted tempo was 67.8 possessions per game. In 2012, Vegas averaged 70 possessions exactly. That was the difference between being ranked No. 110 in the country (which was actually somewhat high for the Kruger era) and No. 29.
And when the Rebels ran, they ran well. According to Synergy Sports scouting data, 20.3 percent of the team's possessions came in transition. (The only plays more frequent were those that ended in spot-up shots.) When the Rebels did run, they scored 1.147 points per possession. It was the only category in which they ranked as "excellent." So, yes, even if it wasn't always pretty, Rice laid the foundation for a new, uptempo era in Sin City. As far as the Runnin' goes, I'd say the Rebels are back.
2. The question is where they go from here, particularly in 2012-13, particularly because the strength of this team isn't going to be an array of lightning-quick guards stretching the floor from basket to basket. Instead, the strength of this team is going to be its frontcourt, which might just be the most talented in the country.
It will start with returning Mike Moser, a 6-foot-8 junior whose length, quickness and versatile array of skills basically make him the prototypical NBA small forward. It continues with Pittsburgh transfer Khem Birch, the No. 1-ranked center in the class of 2011 who never figured it out at Pitt, and never showed us what he was truly capable of, who will be available after Christmas. And then there's Anthony Bennett, the No. 1-ranked power forward in this year's class (and No. 7-ranked player overall), a supremely athletic and skilled 6-foot-8 big man with the ability to score inside and out. By all accounts, Bennett is an immediate impact player at the collegiate level. That would be a fearsome prospect even if he were not being sandwiched between two other supremely talented players. With Moser and Birch in the same frontcourt, the Rebels could outright dominate folks on the inside.
Bennett seems like a sure thing, but there are a couple of questions worth asking here. The first (which was raised rather incisively by the Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy all the way back in May) is whether Moser can adjust to being a pure small forward, and the matchup issues -- positive and negative -- that creates. The other is whether Birch can actually play. Or whether he wants to play. It's hard to trust a guy who so quickly and unceremoniously left a school he spent the better part of four years selecting. He has much to prove moving forward.
3. The same goes for UNLV's backcourt. Oscar Bellfield and Chace Stanback, 2011's key senior guards, are gone. In their place are Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins, now seniors in their own right -- along with USC transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones, who will have plenty of impact at the 2. Marshall may assume the primary ballhandling responsibilities, but he will have to push the pace without committing quite so many turnovers (he posted a 22.9 percent turnover rate) when he does.
Another talented recruit, No. 8-ranked shooting guard Katin Reinhardt, is a very intriguing player here. Reinhardt is known first and foremost for (A) a lights-out outside shot and (B) a flashy handle and a desire to express creativity on the court. I like the sound of all of that, even if leads to the occasional turnover, because it sounds like the kid is going to be very fun to watch.
He might also be key to whether the Rebels can stick to Rice's run-and-gun blueprint. Good shooting in transition and the secondary break will allow Vegas to spread the floor and keep things moving. But it'll be interesting to see if it makes more sense to Rice to slow his guys down a bit -- to use the superior size and athleticism to dominate opponents on the low block, rather than attempt to beat them up and down the floor.
In any case, this team is going to be loaded with talent up front. Few teams in the country -- never mind the Mountain West -- are going to be able to match up man for man. What Rice does with that talent, how he uses it to the Rebels' stylistic and substantive advantage, are going to be fascinating to see. Whatever the outcome, I bet the Rebels will be fun. Just a hunch.