With Anthony Bennett now in the fold, UNLV could be scary good next year

Once McDonald's All-American Anthony Bennett announced Saturday that he's headed to UNLV, it didn't take long for the Findlay Prep forward's future point guard to share his reaction to the news.

"Congrats to AB on joining the Rebel Family!!" UNLV's Anthony Marshall tweeted. "I'm excited. So many weapons around me for next year ... It's bout to get ugly!!!!"

Six exclamation points weren't overkill in this case because the addition of the class of 2012's top unsigned recruit raises the Rebels' stock considerably entering next season.

Bennett can overpower smaller defenders in the paint with his strength and explosiveness. He can drain an open 3-pointer if left open on the perimeter. And his rebounding prowess will help UNLV address its deficiencies on the glass.

Add Bennett to the influx of talent joining a UNLV team that won 26 games last season, and it's easy to see why preseason expectations for the Rebels may be higher than any year since the Jerry Tarkanian era. UNLV's blend of talent, depth and experience merits a spot in the preseason top 15 — maybe higher — and its frontcourt may be as deep and versatile as any in the nation.

Junior-to-be Mike Moser will have an opportunity to play more minutes at small forward next year after averaging 14.0 points and 10.5 rebounds last season as a power forward. Bennett will probably fill the hole at power forward, though he too can play both forward positions. And Pittsburgh transfer Khem Birch will likely usurp Carlos Lopez as the starting center once he becomes eligible in mid-December, giving the Rebels an intimidating shot blocker and another formidable rebounder.

There are more questions about UNLV's backcourt, but it's hardly a weakness.

Anthony Marshall is a slasher and a gifted finisher at the rim who must improve his outside shot and show he can run the offense at point guard for the first time. USC transfer Bryce Jones is the early favorite to replace Marshall at shooting guard after often looking like the Rebels' best guard while playing for the scout team last year. And defensive stopper Justin Hawkins and sweet-shooting incoming freshman Kaitin Reinhardt each will be part of the rotation and have a chance to crack the starting lineup.

That's as talented a roster as UNLV has fielded in about two decades, yet it's a testament to the strength of the upper half of the Mountain West that the Rebels are hardly a clear-cut favorite. San Diego State belongs in the discussion as well thanks to the return of the four guards who led them to the NCAA tournament last season and the arrival of a handful of transfers and recruits to fortify the frontcourt.

Even beyond the Rebels and Aztecs, there are other contenders. New Mexico has its own potent backcourt in Kendall Williams, Tony Snell, Demetrius Walker and Hugh Greenwood, though the loss of Drew Gordon leaves a hole in the paint. And new Colorado  State coach Larry Eustachy inherits the core of last year's guard-oriented NCAA tournament team.

Still, UNLV will have as much or more talent than any of those teams, especially now that the Rebels have Bennett in the fold.

Second-year coach Dave Rice sold Bennett on the chance to thrive in a free-flowing, up-tempo system. It also didn't hurt that close friend and fellow Canadian Birch transferred to the Rebels last December and immediately began urging Bennett to join him.

While UNLV enjoyed consistent success under former coach Lon Kruger, the Rebels rarely won recruiting battles with the likes of Kentucky, Florida, Washington and Oregon for top players like Bennett.

That they're doing it under Rice suggests the program may be on the ascent once again.

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