By: Hubble Smith, Sports Editor
It’s been nearly a quarter century since the UNLV Rebels captured the national basketball championship and it may be another quarter century before they win it again.
Let’s face it, today’s Runnin’ Rebels under third-year coach Dave Rice aren’t in the same league as Jerry Tarkanian’s 1989-90 team led by All-Americans Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon and the nature of college basketball has changed such that building a championship team with quality recruits gives you about as much of a guarantee as you’d get from a used car salesman.
UNLV just landed a blue-chipper in Rashad Vaughn from Findlay Prep, right here in Las Vegas. He’s a 6-5 swingman who was heavily recruited by national stalwarts Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky and Iowa State. Rivals.com ranked him as the No. 7 high school recruit in the nation.
“Vaughn is big, strong, athletic and very adept at driving to his left,” the scouting service said. “His range extends to well beyond the 3-point line. Rebounds very well but has to work on his shot selection and efficiency.”
That’s exciting news for UNLV fans, but let’s not forget the Rebels were also blessed to get Anthony Bennett from Findlay Prep, and look how far that got them. A first-round loss in the NCAA tournament. Bennett bolted for the NBA after just one year, and who could blame him?
As the top draft pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers, he was lavished with a four-year, $22 million contract.
So where does that leave the Rebels this year? Falling below preseason expectations in the topsy-turvy Mountain West Conference. They lost some easy non conference games early in the season and got off to a rough start in conference play, including home losses to Air Force and Nevada.
The feather in their hat came from an upset victory over New Mexico at The Pit.
UNLV improved to 8-4 in the Mountain West and 17-8 overall with a 73-62 victory Feb. 15 at Utah State (5-8, 15-10). The team still has an outside shot at going to the big dance in March. Its next game is Feb. 19 against second-place New Mexico (10-2, 19-5) at Thomas & Mack Center.
The Rebels don’t look bad on the court, just a little inconsistent in their play, especially on offense. Roscoe Smith, a 6-8 junior forward from Baltimore, leads the nation in rebounding with 11.6 boards a game. He’s also one of the team’s more reliable scorers with 11.3 points a game.
Smith came out of prestigious Oak Hill Academy in Virginia and transferred to UNLV from University of Connecticut two years ago.
The Rebels are getting big plays from 6-9 junior Khem Birch, fourth in the nation in blocked shots (3.6 per game). He blocked nine shots against Utah State and swatted away a layup in the final seconds to save the game against Fresno State. Birch also averages 9.3 rebounds and 11.5 points a game.
Bryce Dejean-Jones, a 6-5 junior guard from Los Angeles, has keyed a number of UNLV victories, including the upset at New Mexico when he scored 23 points. He leads the Rebels in scoring with 13.5 ppg.
On a side note, Bennett has come under harsh criticism for under performance in his rookie year. Hall of Famer and NBA analyst Gary Payton said he was too fat and needed to get to the gym before it opens and stay there after it closes. Maybe even get a key to the gym.
Bennett was averaging about two points a game in limited playing time early in the season, but recently showed the potential that made him the top draft pick with his first double-double of the season. And it wasn’t from In-N-Out Burger. He had 19 points and 10 rebounds on Feb. 11 against the Sacramento Kings.
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