Last season, the California Golden Bear basketball team went to Las Vegas with high hopes of getting a quality nonconference road win against a good UNLV team. The Bears, however, ran into a faster and more athletic team and lost by 17 points to the Running Rebels.
Will one year make a difference? Today, UNLV plays Cal again, but this time in the friendly confines of Haas Pavilion in Berkeley. Cal (6-1) once again has a chance to get a quality nonconference win -- UNLV (6-1) is ranked 18th in the USA Today Coaches poll and 21st in the AP poll -- and perhaps shake the bitter taste of last week's 81-56 loss at Wisconsin.
To learn more about UNLV, your intrepid CGB leaders posed some questions to rebelfan1, the resident UNLV expert at Mountain West Connection, and to David Fucillo, who in addition to being the king of Niners Nation is also a knowledgeable UNLV basketball enthusiast.
1. We all know how well Mike Moser and Chace Stanback are doing over at UNLV. What other standout transfers do you guys have? Do you guys feel this is a sustainable model to build on?
Rebelfan1: Well, other than Moser and Stanback, who have both had very good careers, we have a good amount of transfers. First is Bryce Dejean-Jones, who transferred to UNLV from USC. So far this season, he's had a little trouble adjusting to the different offensive style and needs some major work on his shot selection, but he has a lot of talent and could become a very important part to this team. You'll also see Quintrell Thomas out on the floor, who transferred from Kansas, and he is a big rebounder when he's on the court. Our other two transfers are currently waiting to eligible, with Khem Birch being available mid-season and Roscoe Smith being available next season. Birch transferred from Pittsburgh and is expected to make a huge contribution to this team once he becomes eligible, and Roscoe Smith is a great talent, who will most likely continue the string of great transfers at UNLV. As far as whether or not this is a sustainable model to build on, I believe it isn't at this point. When Lon Kruger came in and took over the UNLV program, it was absolutely a good model. When you're trying to build a program to the point where they're expected to be in the Top 25, you need talented players - it doesn't matter where they come from. But once you get to the point where you're trying to take that next step into the group of elite programs, you need to start looking for good high school recruits. If you look at all of the elite programs, none of them take in transfers very often. They recruit the best high school prospects and win with them. I think UNLV has already begun to make that transition, as they signed five high school players last season, highlighted by the top power forward in the recruiting class, Anthony Bennett.
David Fucillo: UNLV has been going the transfer route for some time now, in part because they had not been able to land too many high profile high school recruits. Aside from a Wink Adams or Anthony Marshall in recent years, they have been building the program on transfers. Of course, that dates back to Jerry Tarkanian's days when JuCo transfers were the name of the game (See: Johnson, Larry). This year, aside from Mike Moser, the current Rebels include Bryce DeJean-Jones (USC), Roscoe Smith (UConn) and Quintrell Thomas (Kansas). They will welcome Khem Birch for the second semester, and he will likely move into the starting lineup at center. Thomas is entering his third year with UNLV (excluding redshirt sophomore year), while Jones is in his first year of playing after sitting out last year. Thomas had a solid year two seasons ago under Lon Kruger, but struggled last season in adapting to Dave Rice's run 'n gun offense. He seems to be settling in this year and is third on the team in rebounds, averaging 5.3 a game. Jones is rotating with Justin Hawkins as the team's sixth man, providing a needed spark off the bench.
I think transfers by themselves are not a sustainable building plan, but I do think they can grow to become a great supplement to a viable recruiting pool. For UNLV, this year was a potential breakthrough year for high school recruiting. This year's class was capped by F Anthony Bennett, considering a top ten overall recruit by most services. He chose UNLV over Kentucky, Florida, and Oregon. He is joined by top-50 overall G Katin Reinhardt, G Daquan Cook, F Savon Goodman and F Demetrius Morant, marking the Rebels best class since the Tarkanian days.
2. Katin Reinhardt, who was being recruited by Cal at one point, seems to be adjusting quickly to the college level offensively. However, there have been some concerns about his defense. What are your overall impressions of the standout freshman and what should we expect from him?
Rebelfan1: I think he definitely has already become an integral part of this team's success, especially on offense. The guy can shoot, drive, and pass, making him the ideal successor to Anthony Marshall as the point guard when he graduates next season. Overall though, it's almost a wash. His one on one defense has not been very good, and that was one of the big reasons we couldn't get a stop in the final minutes against Oregon. Reinhardt was able to hit a few key shots, but allowed 10 points in the final four minutes. I really like the upside of this kid, but he has to improve his defense so that he's not giving up open drives to the basket.
David Fucillo: Honestly, I've haven't seen enough Rebel basketball on TV to tell for certain, and every recap and discussion I've read has not spoken about his defense thus far. From an offensive perspective, he is a guy who can light it up, but will also show inconsistency as one can expect from a freshman. At Portland he was 2-10 from the field and had four points. Against UC Irvine he was 4-8 with 13 points. He can be incredibly efficient and he can miss plenty. He has the green light from Dave Rice to fire away, so it's always a roller coaster.
3. What is the legacy of the 1990-1992 teams? Does anyone still care about teams from 20 years ago?
Rebelfan1: Well, up until when Dave Rice returned, the legacy was sort of stained. Most UNLV fans liked how the Runnin' Rebels were on top of the college basketball world, but didn't like the NCAA Scandal that came along with it, and how Jerry Tarkanian was forced out of UNLV. When Rice returned, having played on the 1990 National Championship team, he brought back all of the old traditions from the "Glory Days" of the program and embraced the past. The fans have followed suit and most people have a positive outlook on the teams from the early 1990's.
David Fucillo: The city will always love those late '80s, early '90s squads because they brought a title to Las Vegas, as well as the national spotlight. Even through some struggles since then, UNLV has been able to squeeze quite a bit of reputation out of those teams. At the same time, they cast a fairly enormous shadow. Any team since then that shows something is automatically compared to them. Las Vegas is a bit of a front-runner city in that regard and is looking for the next big Rebels squad.
4. What UNLV player on offense should Cal fans know about?
Rebelfan1: There really is a number of players that Cal fans should be worried about, but if we're mainly talking offense then I'm going to have to go with Katin Reinhardt. I already talked about his defensive woes, but he's definitely an important cog of the offense. with the exception of the Iowa State game, in which he only scored two points, he has been in double figures every game.
David Fucillo: Anthony Bennett is the big name, but the under the radar guy is Savon Goodman. The freshman forward out of Philadelphia was the last addition to this class back in June. He opened with a big performance off the bench against Northern Arizona, scoring 11 points and grabbing five rebounds, two assists, a block and a steal. He slowed a bit after that and has been inconsistent, but could emerge as the primary sixth man for this team as the season wears on. Although UNLV is a big three-point shooting team, Goodman is not one of those shooters, playing as more of a slasher who will take his man off the dribble rather than spot up..
5. What UNLV player on defense should Cal fans know about?
Rebefan1: On defense, Cal should be worried about Anthony Bennett, who has been dominant with defense in the low post this season. Bennett is tall, and was obviously trained well at Findlay Prep in the arts of post defense. Both of those factors have led to him shutting down the opponent's post player.
David Fucillo: Although UNLV is improving their team defense, one player in particular to keep an eye on is Justin Hawkins. He is a scrappy defender, who leads the team in steals and is the sort of glue-guy every team needs. He does the little things, and even manages a block here or there. Anthony Bennett and Mike Moser are the inside presence grabbing rebounds and blocks, but Hawkins is the guy who can spur fast breaks with a timely steal, and is the one to watch.
6. What does UNLV have to do to win this one? What does Cal have to do to beat UNLV?
Rebelfan1: For UNLV, it's pretty simple. Speed the game up and get into a track meet and they should be able to take care of business. If they're getting a lot of transition and fast break points, then they'll most likely win. It's just the opposite for Cal. Taking up most of the shot clock - and scoring at the end of the shot clock - could go a long way in slowing down the Runnin' Rebels. If Cal is able to make this a game in which the clock stops a lot, they should be able to keep up with UNLV.
David Fucillo: As has often been the case with UNLV, in order to win this game they can't fall in love with the three-point ball. I suppose if the shots are dropping, go to town. But this team has the inside presence in Bennett and Moser to control this game in the paint. [Ed. note: since David provided his answers, it was revealed that Moser is day-to-day with a hip flexor injury and is unlikely to play against Cal.] The timely three is always valuable, but Bennett in particular is showing more of a willingness to play with his back to the basket instead of constantly spotting up.
7. Who do you want to punch in the face?
Rebelfan1: I'm not entirely sure what this question is asking, but the way I'm interpreting it is who on this UNLV squad I'm getting fed up with. If that's the question, then the answer is Bryce Dejean-Jones. As I stated earlier, he has a lot of talent and could be very good for this team, but his shot selection has been horrible. In the loss to Oregon, Jones shot the ball the first 11 times he shot the ball - and made two of those shots. In otherwords, he's hurting the team by trying to do everything himself, as if the rest of the team isn't good enough. Unfortunately, with the kind of offense that UNLV runs, that simply isn't going to work. If Dejean-Jones can't get his act together and choose some better shots, then I'm going to have to say he needs to be benched until he can.
David Fucillo: The NCAA, always the NCAA. UNLV has avoided trouble recently (knock on wood), but I'm still bitter about their witch hunt on Jerry Tarkanian. The NCAA can suck it.
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Thanks to Rebelfan1 and David Fucillo for the knowledge.
From the Cal perspective, this is a chance for the Bears to get a good nonconference win on their resume. And they have a chance to do it in front of a crowd that might have a little more buzz in it than usual: newly hired Cal football coach Sonny Dykes will be in attendance. #BearRaid basketball style?!?