Commentary

King's Court: The hottest act in Vegas

Updated: December 20, 2012, 9:38 AM ET
By Jason King | ESPN.com

Five weeks into his first season as a college basketball player, UNLV forward Anthony Bennett has developed a habit that could get him into trouble.

Often, usually after a dunk or a big shot late in a close game, Bennett looks into the crowd, raises his arms to his side -- and flexes.

"I should probably be careful," Bennett said Tuesday. "I don't want to get a technical."

[+] EnlargeAnthony Bennett
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonAnthony Bennett doesn't hide his emotions on the court.

If that happened, coach Dave Rice would likely let it slide. Anyone in Las Vegas these days will tell you Bennett can do no wrong. In a town known as Sin City, Bennett is being hailed as a saint.

No. 21 UNLV will take a 9-1 record into tonight's home game against Missouri Valley contender Northern Iowa. Bennett is one of the main reasons. The 6-foot-7, 240-pound freshman is averaging a team-high 19.3 points and 8.3 rebounds.

Labeling Bennett as the top freshman in the country -- ahead of highly regarded prospects such as Shabazz Muhammad and Nerlens Noel -- is hardly a stretch. If anything, the debate should be about whether Bennett is the best player in the country in the early going.

A freshman (Kentucky's Anthony Davis) won the Wooden Award a season ago. There's no reason it couldn't happen again.

Bennett scoffed when asked whether he scoured results each night to compare his stats to some of the country's other top players.

"I don't even think about stuff like that," he said. "The only reason I ever look at box scores is to see how my guys from Canada are doing."

Bennett is a native of Brampton, Ontario, but he played high school ball at Findlay Prep in the suburbs of Las Vegas. That certainly gave Runnin' Rebels coach Dave Rice an edge when battling schools like Oregon for Bennett's services. The cherry on top for UNLV came when forward Khem Birch transferred to the school from Pittsburgh last fall.

Birch (Montreal) is also from Canada.

"Those two are very close," Rice said. "I think once Khem relayed that he was enjoying his experience here, it really helped put us over the top with Anthony."

Bennett signed with UNLV in the spring, becoming the first McDonald's All-American since Freddie Banks in 1983 to join the program straight out of high school. Fans were already juiced for the 2012-13 season following a 26-9 finish a year ago. Bennett's arrival took the anticipation to a new level.

The 18,187 attendance figure for UNLV's victory over Northern Arizona on Nov. 12 was the largest in school history for a home opener. The Rebels are averaging 15,582 fans at the Thomas & Mack Center, where fans in the "Rebellion" student section hold cardboard images of Bennett above their heads. If that figure lasted until the end of the season, it would be the highest since the memorable 1990-91 season.

Bennett, who has drawn comparisons to former UNLV star Larry Johnson, continues to give fans a reason to keep coming back.

Despite his size, Bennett is able to score from both the paint and the perimeter. He handles the ball away from the basket and is a tenacious rebounder, especially on the offensive end.

His production should increase even more once Birch, who became eligible Monday, settles into the lineup. The return of Mike Moser, last year's leading scorer, from a dislocated elbow in mid-January should also take some of the pressure off Bennett.

"Right now it feels like a lot of teams are really focused on me," Bennett said. "Having those two guys there should really balance things out."

Bennett was held to a season-low 10 points in Monday's 62-60 victory at UTEP. Miners coach Tim Floyd instructed his players to be rough with the freshman and to force him to catch the ball away from the basket, often beyond the 3-point line.

"That," Bennett said the next morning, "was the most physical game I've played."

He never became frustrated or tried to do too much, though. Instead, he continued to play team basketball to ensure UNLV didn't beat itself.

[+] EnlargeUNLV
AP Photo/Don RyanMuch to the chagrin of their rivals, the always-smiling Bennett (left) will be reunited with froncourt mate Mike Moser (right) in MWC play.

Impressed as he is with Bennett's basketball IQ and the fact that he's coachable, Rice said the thing that stands out the most is his selflessness.

"He truly cares about the team," said Rice, who's in his second season at his alma mater. "He's experiencing success only because the agenda he plays with isn't about himself, but about helping his team win."

A time or two this season, when Bennett was supposed to be taking a breather, Rice has sensed someone standing behind him near the bench. On each occasion, Rice turned around and discovered Bennett attempting to scoot by him so he could walk onto the court and high-five a teammate who has just been subbed.

Rice credits Bennett's mother, Edith, for his values and personality, which have been infectious to the entire team and enhanced chemistry.

"There are two kinds of people," Rice said. "There are guys who wake up each up each morning happy, and guys who wake up trying to find a reason not to be happy. He's just a happy person by nature.

"I know that, as coaches, we say a lot of great things about a lot of people, but this is a young man that, when NBA scouts call, I always tell them, 'You can watch him and figure out what kind of player he is on your own. But let me tell you about him as a person. He's an A-plus person.'"

Rice said he's been getting more and more of those calls each week about Bennett, who is now being hailed as a potential top-10 pick in next summer's NBA draft if he decides to leave. Rice isn't shying away from the issue.

"He'll figure all of that out at the end of the year," Rice said. "I hope he has the kind of year to have an opportunity to be in that mix. That'd make me very happy for him. Anthony deserves everything he has coming to him."

REPORT CARD

A: Matthew Dellavedova -- Any conversation about the nation's top point guards has to include the Saint Mary's senior. A fourth-year starter, Dellavedova is averaging a career-high 19.8 points and 5.8 assists, but it's his shooting statistics that stand out the most. Dellavedova is connecting on 54.5 percent of his field goals, a phenomenal number for a player who takes most of his shots from the outside. Even more impressive is his 49.1 percent success rate from 3-point range. "I don't get to see [all the nation's best point guards]," Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. "I just know that you're going to have to be a really good player to be better than him. He's so experienced. When you factor in his leadership, I don't know if there's anyone better."

B: Cincinnati's schedule -- Bearcats coach Mick Cronin has taken heat in the past for his program's soft slate of nonconference games. Cincinnati always enters Big East play with a gaudy record, but no one knows what to make of it because Cronin's squad hasn't played anyone. That's hardly the case this season. Included in UC's 10-0 record are victories over Iowa State, Oregon, Alabama and Marshall. Cincinnati plays Xavier on Wednesday, and its home tilt with No. 16 New Mexico on Dec. 27 is one of the most anticipated games remaining in the non-league season.

[+] EnlargeJuvonte Reddic
AP Photo/John BazemoreIt's probably about time for VCU to crack the Top 25.

C: AP voters dissing VCU -- Look, I know voting in the AP poll is a tough job and one that most people take seriously. But sometimes it feels like ballots are being filled out based solely on records. How many of the people voting have actually watched VCU play? I have, multiple times. I can't fathom how there are 25 better teams. Yes, the Rams have three losses. One came in a 53-51 setback against Wichita State, which was ranked until Monday. The other two were against No. 1 Duke and No. 12 Missouri in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Both defeats were by single digits. The Rams played well in each game and have since rattled off five straight wins by an average of 28.5 points. Among their victims: Alabama, Western Kentucky and Belmont. Shaka Smart's squad should be in the poll.

D: The North Texas Tonys -- Neither has accomplished much this season in Denton. Tony Mitchell likely would've have been a first-round pick had he opted to turn pro after his freshman season. Instead he returned to North Texas to hone his game, but he's averaging just 13.6 points and 8.6 rebounds, which is down from a year ago (14.7 and 10.3). Mitchell's NBA stock is falling. Also struggling is Benford, the former Marquette assistant who's in his first season as the Mean Green's head coach. North Texas is just 5-6 under Benford -- with a loss to Division II Alabama-Huntsville -- after going 18-14 a year ago.

F: Big Six conference races -- Not to be a downer, but I just can't get that jazzed about the league season for most of the nation's biggest conferences. We all know the Big Ten is the best league in the country and is better than it's been in years. The Big East's upper echelon is solid too, with Louisville, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Georgetown and a few others. But my word, some of these other conferences look atrocious. The Pac-12 teased us throughout the offseason, but it turns out it's only slightly better than usual. What's crazy is that the Big 12 could actually be worse. I can't believe I'm saying that, but league "up-and-comer" Oklahoma lost to Stephen F. Austin on Monday night. Texas Tech is fresh off a defeat to McNeese State. Baylor lost at home to Charleston. The SEC is top-heavy with Florida, Missouri and Kentucky. And the ACC isn't anything special beyond Duke. Thank goodness for the Mountain West, Missouri Valley and Atlantic 10.

THIS WEEK'S POLL

Ranking the best college players since 2000 (NBA accomplishments not considered), in order of total points, with number of first-place votes in parentheses (voters: Eamonn Brennan, Andy Katz, Dana O'Neil, Myron Medcalf and me):

1. Tyler Hansbrough North Carolina (3) -- 45
2. Kevin Durant, Texas (1) -- 39
3. Jay Williams, Duke (1) -- 38
4. Anthony Davis, Kentucky -- 20
5. Jameer Nelson, Saint Joseph's -- 16
6. Carmelo Anthony, Syracuse -- 15
6. Michael Beasley, Kansas State -- 15
8. Blake Griffin, Oklahoma -- 13
9. J.J. Redick, Duke -- 11
10. Shane Battier, Duke -- 10

Also receiving votes: Adam Morrison, Gonzaga 9; Dwyane Wade, Marquette 8; Emeka Okafor, Connecticut 6; John Wall, Kentucky 5; Drew Gooden, Kansas 4; Derrick Rose, Memphis 4; Stephen Curry, Davidson 3; Nick Collison, Kansas 3; Juan Dixon, Maryland 3; Jimmer Fredette, BYU 3.

THOUGHTS FROM PRESS ROW

1. Not many players in college basketball are looking forward to the Christmas break as much as Maryland guard Dez Wells. The last few months have been both physically and emotionally taxing for the sophomore.

Wells was expelled from Xavier in the offseason for allegedly violating the school's code of conduct policy. He transferred to Maryland but didn't know whether he'd be eligible until the night before the season opener against Kentucky. The Terrapins, 9-1, lost that game but have won every contest since.

Wells is one of the main reasons. He's averaging 12.2 points while shooting 53.8 percent from the field.

"He really fits in well," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. "That was a concern of mine, because we have such a close team. But he's blended right in. He's been tremendous for us. He's been a good teammate, a good leader.

"Basketball-wise, I think his head is still spinning. Maybe Christmas break will be a good thing for him, just to get away and breathe a little bit and spend time with his mom and then come back with a fresh head. Under the circumstances, I think he's doing really well."

[+] Enlarge Durand Scott
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesMiami has been virtually unstoppable since the return of Durand Scott.

2. Speaking of the ACC, one team not to overlook is Miami. The Hurricanes dropped a game to Florida Gulf Coast early in the year when star guard Durand Scott was serving a suspension. But Jim Larranaga's squad hasn't lost since.

Included in Miami's victories is a triumph over then-No. 13 Michigan State along with double-digit wins against solid teams such as Central Florida, Massachusetts, Charlotte and Detroit.

Scott and Shane Larkin are each averaging 15.3 points, while 6-10 center Reggie Johnson snares 9.7 rebounds.

3. Kansas appeared to lack chemistry early in the season, which was understandable considering it lost its two best players in point guard Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson. Lately, things have changed.

The Jayhawks' last three wins have come by an average of 31 points, and it's not as if the opponents were patsies. Colorado and Belmont will contend for NCAA tournament berths. Richmond was 9-2 before being shellacked by Bill Self's squad Tuesday evening.

As a senior with three Big 12 championship rings, point guard Elijah Johnson knows it's foolish to get too excited in December.

"I wouldn't give us too much credit just yet," Johnson told me over the weekend. "We're finally learning how to play like a Kansas team, but it's still really early. We may be looking better out there, but don't get giddy about it yet. We've still got a lot to work on."

Johnson, who moved from shooting guard to point guard to replace Taylor, is averaging seven assists in his last four games.

"I'm just going through a phase where I'm feeling really good right now," Johnson said.

4. Spoke with Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy on Monday for a feature I penned on John Lucas, but the conversation eventually turned to his team. Eustachy, the former Iowa State and Southern Miss coach, is in his first season with the Rams, who returned nearly every key player from last season's NCAA tournament team.

Colorado State opened the 2012-13 campaign with six straight victories before dropping two games on the road to Colorado and Illinois-Chicago. Each loss was by nine points. Eustachy said the setbacks may have been a good for his team.

"Losing exposes things," he said. "It gets to the core of everything. I finally have my head around this team. I said when I came in there, 'Give me time and I'll figure it out.' Well, I've figured it out."

Colorado State certainly has its work cut out in the Mountain West, which features three ranked teams in UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico. Eustachy thinks the Rams will be just fine.

"They're great guys," Eustachy said. "I think we'll win some games. We've got a small margin for error, but I've figured out who should be where and who should do this or that. It could be a fun season."

5. USC has been a disappointment thus far with a 4-6 record. But four of the Trojans' defeats have been to Top 25 teams Illinois, Minnesota, San Diego State and New Mexico.

[+] EnlargeKevin O'Neill
irby Lee/US PresswireThe losses have continued to pile up for tough-luck USC.

"The best team we've played is Minnesota," USC coach Kevin O'Neill said by phone Tuesday. "They had depth, size and athleticism -- and they're well-coached. I just didn't see a lot of weaknesses."

With Pac-12 play looming, O'Neill is confident his team can bounce back from its rough start. With loads of transfers and players returning from injury, USC is a different team than the one that finished 6-26 a year ago. Knowing it would take time to jell, O'Neill said he hoped the Trojans would be 5-5 by this point.

"We're only one game off of that," he chuckled.

The coach is hopeful that recent changes he made to USC's lineup will speed up its success. Instead of playing with three guards, the Trojans are going with a bigger rotation that features Jio Fontan and Byron Wesley (6-foot-5) on the perimeter, the 6-6 Eric Wise at small forward and 7-footers Dewayne Dedmon and Omar Oraby in the paint. Wake Forest transfer J.T. Terrell, a shooting guard, has been benched.

The development of Oraby, a Rice transfer, will be key, O'Neill said. He had 15 points and 6 rebounds in the second half against Minnesota.

"I like him a lot," O'Neill said. "He's a very good passer that still has a lot to learn. He's a good, developing young big man."

6. My top five Christmas movies, in order: "Christmas Story," "Christmas Vacation," "Trading Places," "Scrooged" and "Home Alone." I know, I know … "Trading Places" wasn't technically a movie about Christmas. But the story took place during Christmas, so there were trees and lights and Santa suits. That's good enough for me.

RAPID FIRE

Underachieving: Villanova
Underrated: Missouri Valley Conference
Overdue: Mike Anderson, Arkansas
Overweight: Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA
Continues to amaze: Brad Stevens, Butler
Continues to disappoint: Jeff Bzdelik, Wake Forest
Team we should be talking about more: Pittsburgh
Another team we should be talking about more: Oregon
Don't sleep on: DePaul
Player I love to interview: Grant Gibbs, Creighton
Player I want to interview: Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
Player who deserves more ink: Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati

Christmas gift ideas for …

Syracuse: $120 gift certificates to Lord & Taylor
Texas Tech and Rutgers: Capri Suns, orange slices and warm fuzzies
Tennessee: Hula hoops as replacements for rims
Gonzaga: The Big 12's automatic NCAA tournament berth, since they'll have defeated just about every team in the league other than Kansas, which will get a bid anyway.

STARTING FIVE

Each week, I'll pick the top five players -- and three reserves -- to play for a high-profile coach at his current school. Disagree with my selections? Let me hear about.

Texas' All-Rick Barnes team

Starters

G -- T.J. Ford: National Player of the Year led Texas to the 2003 Final Four; jersey retired
G -- D.J. Augustin: 2008 Cousy Award winner was No. 9 overall pick in NBA draft
F -- Kevin Durant: National Player of the Year in 2007 had his jersey retired; NBA All-Star
F -- P.J. Tucker: Big 12 Player of the Year in 2006 led team to Elite Eight
C -- Chris Mihm: Longhorns' all-time blocks leader was first-team All-American in 2000

Reserves

G -- Jordan Hamilton: Averaged 18.6 points and 7.7 rebounds as a sophomore
F -- Damion James: Four-year starter averaged 18 points, 10.3 rebounds as a senior
F -- LaMarcus Aldridge: No. 2 overall pick in the 2006 draft after two years in Austin

PREDICTION TIME

Cincinnati 77, vs. Xavier 66: Xavier is 7-2 with a pair of ugly losses against Pacific and Vanderbilt. Cincinnati is undefeated with all but two of its victories coming by double digits.

North Carolina 79, at Texas 62: Not even Myck Kabongo could save the undermanned Longhorns in this one. North Carolina simply has too much depth and talent.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsWill Temple hand No. 3 Syracuse its first loss?

Baylor 71, BYU 68: The Bears lost to College of Charleston and Northwestern at home. Even with that win at Kentucky, they can't afford another nonconference loss.

Syracuse 75, vs. Temple 66: The Owls have the confidence to pull the upset, but not the manpower.

Kansas 72, at Ohio State 65: The surging Jayhawks face their first true road test of the season against the team they beat in the 2012 Final Four.

Florida 80, vs. Kansas State 61: The Wildcats are having trouble scoring -- and they're catching Florida at the worst possible time.

Missouri 69, vs. Illinois 67: The Illini's magic has to end -- or at least hit a snag -- at some point. Doesn't it?

Last week: 4-3
Season total: 10-4

PIT STOPS

Johnny's Po-Boys, New Orleans: One word came to mind when I learned that New Orleans was the site of the 2012 Final Four: food. Or, more specifically, po-boys. Try as they may, other cities can't come close to matching N'Awlins when it comes to the oversized sandwiches. Mother's Restaurant on Poydras Street is rightfully hailed as one of the area's top po-boy destinations, but I wanted to try something new, so I took my cab driver's advice and went to Johnny's. Actually, I stopped by three times in five days. The roast beef po-boy, with its glorious gravy, was so good the first time that I went back later that evening and took down another one. A few days later, I couldn't resist ordering the fried shrimp po-boy, which was overflowing with battered goodness. The menu at Johnny's is huge, with 46 po-boys. Good luck trying to choose.

Southside Mafia Pizzeria, Overland Park, Kan.: When you eat at most pizza buffets, you're usually sacrificing quality for quantity. And that's fine. Sometimes you just want to spend an hour at CiCi's crushing pizza until the manager cuts you off and calls a cab. Mafia Pizzeria, however, is a totally different experience. The pizza under those heat lamps is actually fresh with crispy crust, loaded with toppings and is big enough for a New York-style foldover, and, well … just really, really good. I honestly didn't think it was possible to find this level of pie at a buffet, but I've been to Mafia Mikes four times now, and it keeps getting better.