What was maybe the most talked-about recruitment of a high school basketball star in Las Vegas history came to a close on Wednesday night.
Bishop Gorman star and McDonald’s All-American Shabazz Muhammad — the top overall prospect in the 2012 senior class — put an end to three years of suspense by committing to UCLA. He chose the Bruins over Kentucky and Duke, and now will team up with fellow McDonald’s All-American guard Kyle Anderson in trying to help restore the luster to the West Coast’s most tradition-rich program.
UNLV was removed from Muhammad’s list of potential suitors last month, which, given the Rebels’ roster landscape, didn’t come as much of a surprise at the time.
It was essentially a matter of deciding between want and need for UNLV coach Dave Rice and his staff.
Rice recruited Muhammad aggressively from the moment he landed the job last April, and before him, former UNLV coach Lon Kruger did the same. No matter how well he fit within the framework of what the Rebels already had, pursuing the top prospect in the nation when he’s located in your backyard is a no-brainer.
However, over the past few months, with only one scholarship to give before Karam Mashour’s release from the program on Tuesday freed up a second, Rice and his staff shifted more focus towards their true need — a big man who can rebound at a high level and be a trigger man for the offense from both the low- and mid-post.
Signing day came and went for UNLV without much noise. After years of pursuit, the Rebels falling by the wayside in the Shabazz Muhammad sweepstakes came as little surprise.
Next season, one position where Dave Rice’s club is not lacking in depth is on the perimeter, especially in terms of scorers.
Back from last season’s 26-win squad will be seniors Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins, who will both see time running the point in combo guard roles similar to what they played in 2011-12. Also, honorable mention All-American Mike Moser, who starred as a stretch-power forward for the Rebels as a sophomore and then flirted with entering June’s NBA draft, will see much more time at the small forward spot as a junior. Competing for time in the lead guard role will be junior Marquette transfer Reggie Smith, who struggled to pick up the offense after becoming eligible in December, but is expected to make significant strides over the summer.
A wealth of newcomers also ease plenty of the pressure on the returners. The current crowned jewel of Rice’s 2012 recruiting class is 6-foot-5 combo guard Katin Reinhardt, coming in as the No. 38 overall prospect in his class according to Rivals.com. In the long-term, he projects out as a very similar do-it-all type to what Rice had at BYU in star Jimmer Fredette, with an ability to score from anywhere with confidence and a rare feel for the game that allows him to create for others with natural ease. He’s joined by Baltimore product Daquan Cook, entering the program as an under-the-radar recruit, but can score in bunches.
The most buzz might be surrounding sophomore USC transfer Bryce Jones, who redshirted during the 2011-12 campaign. He has a chance to be UNLV’s top scoring option next season, and also brings the in-your-face approach to the floor that the Rebels needed at times last season, especially down the stretch run. Rice’s first official recruit at UNLV, Jones’s presence a major reason why landing Muhammad was never looked at as a must for the Rebels’ staff. The two are very similar in terms of their offensive games, work ethics and rare competitive streaks.
So, again. UNLV’s biggest need is up front.
With Moser stepping out and playing more at the small forward spot next season, the Rebels’ current corps of big men includes senior Quintrell Thomas, redshirt junior Carlos Lopez and incoming freshman Demetris Morant — Another Rivals Top 150 recruit who is an elite-level athlete, yet somewhat raw. A redshirt year for Morant could be a possibility come the fall.
Thomas struggled to both rebound at the same rate and score as efficiently in Rice’s first year as he did in Kruger’s final season at the helm, while Lopez is a highly-skilled offensive player who needs to develop a better nose for the ball as a rebounder. Lopez’s first two seasons have been hindered somewhat by unlucky injuries.
Of UNLV’s two vacant scholarships, one will likely be used on someone who can contribute right away in 2012-13, with the other probably being saved for either the pursuit of a mid-year transfer next December or another 2013 prospect.
The options right now are …
• Findlay Prep senior forward Anthony Bennett — Following a series of commitments on Wednesday, Bennett is now the top unsigned prospect remaining in the 2012 crop. At 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds, Bennett’s brawn and versatility allows him to play any of the three frontcourt positions, and he will have an impact right away no matter where he ends up. The three front-runners for his services appear to be UNLV, Kentucky and Florida, though Kentucky might fade away some following a commitment from top 2012 big man Nerlens Noel on Wednesday, which gives them three frontcourt commits in this year’s recruiting class. Following this weekend’s Jordan Brand Classic in North Carolina, Bennett’s recruiting process will go into overdrive, and an official visit to UNLV over the next couple of weeks is likely. UNLV already edged out Florida once this year in the battle for Pitt transfer Khem Birch. Can they do it again, as Birch — like Bennett, a Canadian — also helps out in the process?
• Tennessee senior forward Renaldo Woolridge — The Sherman Oaks, Calif., native graduates from Tennessee this spring and will be eligible for a fifth year right away wherever he decides to transfer to, and UNLV sees him as the top back-up option should Bennett fall through. In a Tennessee career hindered some by injury — most notably a foot injury that cost him much of his junior season and earned him a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA — he averaged 3.2 points and 2.3 rebounds per game. He averaged career bests in minutes (13.6), points (4.3) and rebounds (3.3) as a senior, and his 6-foot-9 package could translate well in the Mountain West. The Rebels will be competing with several West Coast programs for his services, including USC and Pepperdine.
• Going the juco route — UNLV has a handful of junior college prospects on its radar, though this appears to be the back-up to the back-up option right now. Tops on that list is College of Southern Idaho forward Luke Cothron — a former blue-chip recruit whose college career was derailed some by academic issues. He averaged 14 points and 8.1 rebounds per game this season, and is drawing interest from several high-major programs around the country entering the spring signing period.
Who will be the final piece to UNLV’s 2012-13 puzzle? It should be known at some point in the next month.