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The UNLV Enigma

This weekend it was announced that rising UNLV sophomore Katin Reinhardt would be transferring. While Reinhardt received plenty of playing time under UNLV head coach Dave Rice (even when he probably should have played less), Reinhardt wants to be a point guard at the college level in order to improve his NBA Draft stock. Rice couldn’t promise him playing time at that position and Reinhardt is leaving as a result.

Replacing Reinhardt won’t be impossible. Reinhardt’s ORtg was just 99 last season. And UNLV’s roster is still loaded with elite high potential talent. Here is a list of former Top 100 recruits on UNLV’s roster next season:

Khem Birch (RSCI #11, originally played at Pittsburgh)

Bryce Dejean-Jones (RSCI #82, originally played at USC)

Roscoe Smith (RSCI #28, transfer from UConn)

Deville Smith (RSCI #92, transfer from Mississippi St. and JUCO)

Jelan Kedrick (RSCI #21, transfer from Mississippi and JUCO)

Savon Goodman (RSCI #82 in 2012)

Christian Wood (ESPNU #71 in 2013)

Kendall Smith (ESPNU #88 in 2013)

That is eight former Top 100 recruits. Only four teams (Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and North Carolina) have more than eight former Top 100 recruits on their roster heading into next season. In other words, UNLV might not quite have enough talent to compete at the very highest levels of college basketball, but there are very few teams that should be able to run UNLV off the floor with their athleticism.

(This list doesn’t include Carlos Lopez-Sosa and DaQuan Cook, who will also likely see some playing time next year.)

But if the biggest challenge isn’t replacing Katin Reinhardt, the biggest challenge might be getting rid of his attitude. Dave Rice needs to convince his roster of transfers that winning is the most important thing next season.

John Calipari gets a lot of criticism for his talent-first approach, but the reason it works is he gets the players to buy into the team concept. Calipari gets his players to believe that by making each other better, they will be better in the long-run.

For many of the players on UNLV’s roster, often labeled the land of misfit toys because of the transfer culture, they may have left other schools because they thought it was in their personal interest. But now they have to prove that they can contribute to a winning team.

Almost no one thinks UNLV will be better than last year. The Runnin' Rebels lost Anthony Bennett to the NBA draft. They lost a vital 4-year player in Anthony Marshall. They lost Mike Moser to transfer. And that is why UNLV isn’t showing up in most people’s Top 25 rankings for next year.

Meanwhile, my model is equally pessimistic. After finishing with the 42nd best margin of victory numbers last year, the model projects them to be slightly worse on offense and defense which would actually put them outside the NCAA tournament field at this point.

Part of the reason is that my model isn’t in love with Dave Rice. Yes, he has had his moments. His win against North Carolina two years ago was one of the biggest of the entire 2011-12 season. And he has earned some pretty good seeding in the NCAA tournament, even last year. But when it comes to grinding it out, possession after possession, he hasn’t been able to do what the other teams with this type of talent typically do. The model doesn't completely respect him as a coach.

But this is the kind of season where Rice can absolutely earn some respect by winning games. That is because, among the returning Top 100 talent, only two of the players posted ORtgs over 100 in their last stop. Here are their most recent D1 ORtgs:

Jelan Kendrick 77, Deville Smith 90, Savon Goodman 93, Bryce Dejean-Jones 96, Roscoe Smith 106, Khem Birch 110

Keep in mind that Roscoe Smith only used 14 percent of UConn’s possessions in his last season. He only shot when wide open, suggesting his 106 ORtg is less impressive. With the high ceiling for all these guys, almost certainly a few of them will develop. But Rice’s biggest challenge will be making sure that if someone is taking too many bad shots, that within the team unit, they can make the proper adjustment.

Recruiting athletic players is only half the battle. Getting talented players to buy into the team concept takes real work.

March Madness Through The NBA Lens (Round Of 64)

While the NCAA Tournament has cachet all its own, one way of looking at the Tournament is through the lens of the NBA. While the lottery guys get plenty of buzz leading into the Tourney, I like to spend more time on the players on more middling teams for the first few days since it is less likely that their teams survive long enough to evaluate them further.

On that note, here is the day-by-day:

Thursday

Headline games:

Pittsburgh vs. Wichita State (1:40 PM Eastern)- This game makes the list primarily because of Steven Adams. The big man from New Zealand has not produced as much as many of us hoped during the season but has the chance to show his potential this weekend. The Shockers rebound well enough to challenge him and I am intrigued by Carl Hall.

Memphis vs. St. Mary’s (2:45 PM Eastern)- While Memphis has a slew of intriguing athletic question marks (Adonis Thomas, Joe Johnson and DJ Stephens are just three of them), St. Mary’s has Matthew Dellavedova. Matthew stands out as an unusual draft prospect because of his age (22) and subpar athleticism for his position but has the shooting stroke and basketball IQ to stick in the league longer than expected. We will learn a ton about everyone in this game. 

Other games to watch:

Syracuse vs. Montana (9:57 PM Eastern)- Michael Carter-Williams vs. Will Cherry. My bet is that one of them will massively help his draft stock in this game.

Oklahoma State vs. Oregon (4:40 PM Eastern)- Marcus Smart will have his hands full with future prospect Dominic Artis. We’ll see how Le’Bryan Nash handles the spotlight as well.

Michigan vs. South Dakota State (7:15 PM Eastern)- Senior sensation Nate Wolters gets the chance to show his value against a Michigan team full of potential NBA players (Trey Burke, Glenn Robinson III, and Tim Hardaway Jr among them).

UNLV vs. Cal (7:27 PM Eastern)- Anthony Bennett and Allen Crabbe will be the headliners but I am focused on how UNLV matches up on defense.

Friday

Headline game:

UCLA vs. Minnesota (9:57 PM Eastern)- After the injury to Jordan Adams, this could be our only chance to see lottery pick Shabazz Muhammad in the Tourney. Kyle Anderson, Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams are three other likely pros worth keeping an eye on.

Other games to watch:

Wisconsin vs. Ole Miss (12:40 PM Eastern)- Marshall Henderson. That is all.

North Carolina vs. Villanova (7:20 PM Eastern)- Despite deeply disappointing this season, UNC has plenty of NBA talent in the form of James Michael McAdoo, Reggie Bullock and PJ Hariston. Each of those guys needs to make an impression over the next few weeks in order to rehabilitate their stock.

Creighton vs. Cincinnati (2:45 PM Eastern)- One of the best potential tests for Doug McDermott makes this one particularly fascinating.

San Diego State vs. Oklahoma (9:20 PM Eastern)- Jamaal Franklin has been underappreciated by the national college hoops media but has a chance to make his own statement on the opening weekend. If the Aztecs can get past Oklahoma, a potentially star-making meeting with Georgetown looms.

Freshman Prospects Before New Year's: Anthony Bennett

In my fourth installment of “Freshman Prospects Before New Year's”, I explore Anthony Bennett, one of the nation’s most productive freshmen and someone who has really captured the national spotlight early on. Prior to joining UNLV’s squad, Bennett was a relatively late bloomer who rose to prominence at high school powerhouse Findlay Prep after growing up in Brampton, Ontario. Coming into this season, Bennett’s talents were overshadowed by bigger ‘name’ players, but his impact offensively has been unmatched by any freshman at this juncture of the season.   

So far this year, Anthony Bennett has dominated on the offensive end of the floor, where he is averaging 19.50 points per game, second only to Shabazz Muhammad in freshman scoring. Standing at a bulky 6’7 239 lbs, Bennett has worked hard to shed weight, while still retaining his strength advantage. As it currently stands, Bennett is one of the more versatile prospects at the collegiate level today. He scores his points in a variety of different ways, from facing up in the post to dialing in from beyond the arc. He is most effective vying for position in the post and then employing his faceup game to attack the basket. Bennett does a good job of utilizing his lower body strength to pin his man on the block. Once he receives the ball on the catch, Bennett typically faces up for an easy jumper in the paint, or attacks the rim with reckless abandon. He has a deceptively quick first step, and is explosive and powerful enough to get to the rim and finish over multiple defenders. Bennett has a flair for the spectacular and likes to make statement dunks to shift his team’s momentum.

In order to drive past his man, Bennett employs a believable shot fake that often draws the defender off his feet. He also boasts an improved handle, which he utilizes to get to the rim from anywhere on the court. On several possessions that I witnessed, he was able to bring the ball all the way up the floor and go coast to coast for an easy lay in through contact. Few players at his size possess that kind of versatility. With that said, I believe that he will only be able to attack the basket from the free throw line in at the next level. His handle is serviceable enough, though, that he will likely be able to translate his post faceup game to the NBA level.  

Due to his aggressive “slashing” mentality and his willingness to draw contact, Bennett is drawing fouls at a very high rate. In fact, his 7.2 fouls drawn per 40 minutes currently ranks 18th in the nation. Bennett must look to maintain this same level of intensity on the offensive end and avoid settling for jump shots, as he did against North Carolina the other night. With that said, Bennett is strong with the ball on his drives, and rarely turns it over. He ranks eighth in the Mountain West Conference in Turnover Percentage, despite having the ball on 26.4 percent of his team’s possessions. In this regard, Bennett understands his limitations and plays well beyond his years.

While he is effective attacking the rim following a post entry feed, Bennett’s back to the basket game is largely undeveloped. He has good pivoting footwork on his faceup moves, so he may be able to develop this facet of his post game down the road. He also has a low enough center of gravity to back his man close to the rim.   When he does opt to faceup and shoot over his opposition, Bennett displays good balance and a highly effective shooting form. He is capable from the mid range as well, and is not shy squaring and connecting on jumpers off the bounce. As a result of these abilities, he is currently converting 61.0 percent of his two point attempts. 

Bennett’s range extends to the college three point line, where he had been shooting the ball pretty well in early action, but has struggled as of late. Overall, he is hitting a mere 31.6 percent of his three point attempts, but he continues to shoot, even when contested. Despite those below average numbers, it is clear that he possesses the range to keep defenses honest at the next level. And, he has put considerable time into his jump shot, so I expect this to be a strength of his down the road, even if he is currently struggling. With this in mind, Bennett must improve his shot selection and not try to force the issue from three point range. In fact, against UNC, he limited himself by camping out beyond the arc and not out-working McAdoo and Hubert for position inside. 

Anthony Bennett also shows some promise in the pick and roll game. He uses his wide body to get in ideal position for picks and usually is able to free up his guards. Bennett then does a nice job of carving space on rim runs, and he is very quick exploding to the basket. Because of his versatility, Bennett will also be able to fade to the outside after setting screens and free himself for open mid range jumpers depending on how opposing defenses are situated. Further, Bennett has a great motor and is able to get out in transition and finish. 

In terms of his ability to collect rebounds, Bennett shows some promise on the glass. He possesses solid box out fundamentals, leveraging his lower body to prevent players from rebounding over the back of him.  Bennett also has a knack of anticipating where the ball is going to be once it hits the rim, and he is able to cover ground in a hurry to chase after rebounds and loose balls. Bennett has a very high activity level on both ends of the floor, and is willing to dive into the crowd to create extra possessions for his team. Currently, Bennett ranks seventh in the MWC in Defensive Rebounding Percentage and ninth in Offensive Rebounding Percentage. These numbers do not fully capture Bennett’s assertiveness and impact on the glass though. This is because he has a tendency to bite on fakes at the defensive end, which continuously puts him at a disadvantage when trying to secure rebounds. 

With regard to his overall impact defensively, Bennett’s post defense leaves a lot to be desired. Bennett constantly opts to front the post, with mixed results. At times, he is able to corral the ball when the post entry pass is telegraphed. However, when the post entry feed is less obvious and the ball is in the hands of a skilled passer, this playmaker is typically able to lob the ball right over the top of Bennett for an easy lay in. I suspect that such plays will consistently occur at the next level as well, unless Bennett is willing and able to change his approach to post defense. Instead of constantly fronting the opposition, Bennett should use his wide base to ‘chest’ his man off the block. When he has played back on post players so far this season, Bennett has given up deep post position, which makes it difficult to recover defensively.  With this said, Bennett is very active defensively, and does a nice job of contesting without fouling when he decides to play positional defense. Bennett has good lateral quickness for a four and is able to stay in front of his man in the post. 

With regard to his physical capabilities on this end, despite his below average height for an NBA power forward at 6’7, Bennett compensates with a 7’1 wingspan. He currently has the fourth best Blocks Percentage in the Mountain West Conference, and this is a testament to his length and athleticism. While he is capable of blocking shots, Bennett is not especially effective as a help defender, sometimes even standing in the way of his teammate and watching the opposition go to the hoop for an easy lay in. Bennett must improve his awareness as a help defender and look to step in and take more charges. With that said, he is able to step out on the perimeter and defend post players who are capable of stretching the defense. When he is defending on the perimeter, though, he is often prone to biting on shot fakes.

In addition to these struggles, Bennett is also a very poor pick and roll defender. Bennett has poor hedging techniques and rarely forces the opposing team’s guard to change directions on pick and roll plays. Instead, he often appears to be mechanically going through the motions, and steps out only momentarily before getting back to defend the rim. On other occasions, he does not hedge at all and allows open perimeter jumpers. In the instances where he does provide a momentary hedge, Bennett rarely recovers quickly enough to get back to his man and is usually stuck on a switch off. Of all the areas he must improve, Bennett’s pick and roll defense needs the most work. 

All in all, Anthony Bennett is one of the most efficient offensive weapons in the country as a freshman (ninth in Offensive Rating among those who use 24 percent or more of their team’s possessions, and 85th best overall). He exhibits considerable promise as a faceup post player who can step out and hit from the mid range. With that said, Bennett has a lot of room for growth on the defensive end. While he possesses the physical tools to improve considerably, his mental approach to defense will need some fine-tuning at the next level. Due in large part to his intriguing offensive skillset, look for Bennett to climb up draft boards and cement himself as a late lottery selection in the upcoming 2013 NBA draft.

Early Season Tournaments: Brackets, Observations, And Odds: Part 3

Breaking down early season tournaments featuring UNLV, San Diego State, Arizona, Oregon, Wisconsin, Cal, Creighton and more.

2012 Mountain West Power Rankings

San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV were the three best teams in college basketball west of the rockies.

Who Is Hot, Who Is Not

When it comes to February in college basketball, some teams get better, the rest get left in the rear view mirror. Here are the teams that are surging and falling over their past 10 games.

Freshmen Bring Hope

Teams that play a lot of freshmen are the most likely to improve as the season goes on, while those with a lot of experience are more likely to plateau. In this piece, we examine freshmen minutes for every major school in the country.

The Census: RealGM's NCAA Rankings For Dec. 5

Aaron Craft, Jared Sullinger and Ohio State were ready to trounce on the No. 1 slot in RealGM's rankings if not for an Anthony Davis block.

The Census: RealGM's NCAA Rankings For Nov. 28th

Kentucky at No. 1, North Carolina drops to No. 4, while Saint Louis, Harvard, San Diego State and Creighton enter RealGM's rankings.

Conference Rankings (End Of Jan. Edition)

As we have commonly seen in recent seasons, the Big East has been the deepest conference in the country.

 

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