Crank up the hype machine.
A stellar 2012 recruiting class got that much better on Saturday, as UNLV landed the top unsigned senior in the nation, landing 6-foot-8 Findlay Prep forward Anthony Bennett.
Multiple sources confirmed the news to RunRebs.com. His official paperwork should be completed within the next two days, making him officially a member of the UNLV program.
Bennett chose the Rebels over Oregon, and recently dropped Florida and Kentucky from the mix in what was a heated, lengthy recruiting process.
Bennett, ranked as the No. 7 overall prospect in the 2012 crop by Rivals.com, becomes the fourth member of UNLV’s incoming class. He joins Mater Dei (Calif.) High guard Katin Reinhardt (No. 38), bouncy-yet-raw Bishop Gorman forward Demetris Morant (No. 144) and Baltimore combo guard Daquan Cook.
Also coming in will be USC transfer Bryce Jones — a scoring-minded guard who could be UNLV’s top player right from go — and Pitt transfer Khem Birch. Birch, like Bennett, comes in with McDonald’s All-American credentials and, also like Bennett, is a Canadian import. The friendship between the two grew after Birch, a Montreal native, transferred to UNLV at the start of the spring semester. He was integral in luring his pal from Toronto to campus, and it’s believed that if Birch had never landed at UNLV, securing a commitment from Bennett might never have been a real possibility.
And just like that, the stakes are immediately raised for UNLV entering its second season under Dave Rice.
The Rebels went 26-9 last season, but faded late. Now, they return several key pieces from that club, including …
• Honorable mention All-American Mike Moser, who after averaging 14 points and 10.5 rebounds as a sophomore, will move from the power forward spot to small forward as a junior, deciding to put his NBA plans off for at least another year.
• A pair of versatile, trustworthy veterans in the backcourt in seniors Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins. Hawkins broke out as a junior and emerged as arguably the top sixth man in the Mountain West, while Marshall continued his gradual improvement all around, averaging 12.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.5 assists while establishing himself as an elite perimeter defender.
• A wealth of depth, as several role players come back a year older, including senior forward Quintrell Thomas, junior forward Carlos Lopez and junior guard Reggie Smith.
But what Bennett’s addition does is give UNLV arguably one of the nation’s top front courts.
Despite battling nagging injuries for the second year in a row at Findlay Prep, Bennett averaged 16.5 points and 10 rebounds for the Pilots, helping lead the program to its third ESPN Rise National High School Invitational title in four years.
Like Moser, he has the ability to play both the small and power forward spots, and he’ll provide some much-needed relief on the glass, as Moser was UNLV’s lone consistent rebounder last season — a weakness that opponents took advantage more and more as the year progressed.
Once Birch is eligible at the conclusion of the fall semester, it will give UNLV not only another elite-level rebounder, but also an intimidating shot-blocker who can change games on the defensive end.
The entire mix should make UNLV a likely preseason Top-15 team, and could help the Rebels unseat conference kingpin San Diego State as the preseason favorite in the Mountain West.
The key for Bennett will be staying healthy.
When he is, he’s a powerful forward who plays with endless energy, capable of finishing strong at the rim or stepping out and draining 3-point jumpers. But his two seasons at Findlay were derailed some by back, hamstring, knee and ankle injuries at various times.
UNLV is now left with one open scholarship heading into the 2012-13 season, and it’s not yet known if that vacancy will be filled. If it is, a top target of the Rebels’ staff at the moment is UConn transfer Roscoe Smith, who would be eligible immediately and would have two years to play. Also in the mix is 6-foot-6 Philadelphia power forward Savon Goodman, who is another highly sought-after unsigned senior. However, with Bennett now in the mix, it appears that scholarship will likely be carried over and used either on a recruit for the 2013 class or on a transfer over the next year. It’s also highly likely that, given UNLV’s depth in the coming season, a couple of Rebels could end up redshirting.
For more on this story as it develops, stay tuned to RunRebs.com.