Men at Work

The Rebels' freshmen are getting up to speed on the defensive end

As expected, UNLV’s superlative freshman class has made a big impact on the Rebels’ offense. Anthony Bennett, Katin Reinhardt and Savon Goodman have all flashed the ability to run the floor and put the ball in the basket.

But in order to play big minutes and keep shining on offense, they’ll need to produce on the defensive end as well.

For freshmen, the difference between defending at the high school level and the college level can be jarring. It takes time for young players to adjust both physically and mentally, and so far the Rebels’ newcomers look like they’re keeping up.

“The freshmen are doing a great job,” said coach Dave Rice. “It’s always a fine line between teaching concepts and just letting them play hard, because sometimes when you teach too many concepts it can paralyze their thought process a little bit. We want to make sure we stay aggressive on the defensive end.”

Bennett has been a force in the paint in the Rebels’ first two games, overwhelming his undersized opponents in Northern Arizona and Jacksonville State. He’s played most of his minutes at center, and his post defense has been outstanding. According to Synergy data, Bennett is allowing just 0.231 points per possession, which is by far the lowest mark on the team. Bennett has been posted up in isolation eight times so far, and those eight possessions have resulted in just three points.

Opponents simply haven’t been able to score against the 6-foot-8, 240-pounder. He’s averaging 2.5 blocks per game in just 21 minutes, and he’s also doing his job on the boards as well, pulling in 8.0 rebounds per game.

According to Bennett, the key is attention to detail.

“You can’t take plays off,” said Bennett. “You always have to stay on your feet, have your knees bent. In high school, with me being the biggest guy on the court, you can get a pass with everything. But here you can’t, because everybody’s just as big as you.”

While Bennett was expected to be a game-changer on both ends of the floor, Reinhardt’s D has been a pleasant surprise. Much of that is because of perception. The 6-foot-5 combo guard arrived at UNLV with a reputation as a gunslinger, and gunslingers aren’t typically known as the best defenders. The Monta Ellises and Eddie Houses of the world can give up as many points as they score.

But whereas Bennett’s raw numbers will stand out in the box score, you have to dig a little deeper to see how Reinhardt’s defense has impacted the team. He can defend both backcourt spots, and he’s held up well, even with opponents seemingly targeting him.

Reinhardt has been attacked on isolation plays more than any other Rebel, but on the season his matchup has shot just 38.9 percent against him. He’s also forced more turnovers than anyone on the team, forcing TOs at a 29.6 percent clip.

Reinhardt said he worked on his lateral quickness in preparation for defending at the collegel level, and he’s secure in his assignments.

“Mostly just play straight up, solid man defense,” said Reinhardt. “Try to keep the guards away from the middle so they can’t dump the ball off. Basically just guarding the ball straight up and giving weak-side help, making sure they can’t skip the ball across for an open 3.”

Because he’s taken care of business on the defensive end, Rice has been able to leave Reinhardt on the floor for 30.5 minutes per game, second only to senior point guard Anthony Marshall.

Goodman hasn’t seen those kind of extended minutes yet, but he’s got all the makings of a defensive standout. Before the season started, Rice said he envisioned Goodman developing into a lockdown stopper, and though he’s been slowed by a thigh injury, he should carve out a significant role as the season goes on.

The freshmen will be tested even more this weekend, with Oregon on tap Friday night, followed by a matchup with either Iowa State or Cincinnati.

“The biggest thing about the freshmen is that they play hard,” said Rice, “and they take it personally when someone scores on them.”

Follow Mike Grimala (@MikeGrimala) on Twitter for 24/7 Rebels updates.

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