Christian Wood's departure dims optimism regarding UNLV

The Dagger
UNLV forward Christian Wood pushes past Florida National forward Yves Goedschalk during an NCAA college basketball exhibition game Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, Sam Morris)
UNLV forward Christian Wood pushes past Florida National forward Yves Goedschalk during an NCAA college basketball exhibition game Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, Sam Morris)

On the eve of his announcement whether he'd stay at UNLV or turn pro, forward Christian Wood tweeted a picture of himself and three of next year's Rebels with the caption, "Kinda a cool pic. What do yall think?"

UNLV fans thought it was an omen. Turned out it was Wood giving them false hope.

Wood announced through a video on his Twitter account Wednesday night that he'll skip his final two years of eligibility and declare for the NBA draft. The athletic 6-foot-11 sophomore is projected as a late first-round pick and could rise even higher if he impresses in pre-draft workouts.

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A role player as a freshman, Wood enjoyed a breakout year this past season during an otherwise forgettable winter for the UNLV basketball program. He was second on the team in scoring at 15.7 points per game, averaged a team-best 10 rebounds per game and developed into a very capable rim protector on defense.

The departure of Wood dims some of the optimism UNLV generated last week when it landed a commitment from skilled 7-foot incoming freshman Stephen Zimmerman. Wood and Zimmerman could have emerged as one of the nation's elite frontcourt duos, but the Rebels instead will have to settle for pairing their prized freshman with Oregon transfer Ben Carter or returners Goodluck Okonoboh and Dwayne Morgan.

UNLV needs its frontcourt to be special because its backcourt lacks elite talent or outside shooting in the wake of leading scorer Rashad Vaughn's decision to enter the draft.

Six-foot-6 combo guard Patrick McKaw will almost certainly be one of the starters after displaying great promise during the second half of his freshman season. Incoming freshmen Jones and Jaylen Poyser, Rutgers transfer Jerome Seagears and returners Jordan Cornish and Daquan Cook all figure to compete for playing time as well.

Coaxing a bounce-back season out of that group will be critical for UNLV coach Dave Rice because his job could very well depend on it.

In Rice's four-year tenure at UNLV, he has stockpiled more talent than any Rebels coach since the program's golden era under Jerry Tarkanian, but all that talent hasn't translated into a return to the glory days just yet. UNLV has yet to finish higher than third in the Mountain West under Rice, nor has it won an NCAA tournament game, falling in the opening round in both 2012 and 2013 before missing the postseason altogether the past two years.

Rice's challenge will be getting the Rebels back to the NCAA tournament next season, a goal Wood's presence would have surely helped him attain.

Instead UNLV will have to overcome the loss of three starters including far and away its two most productive players.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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