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MWC basketball preview: UNLV hoops begins post-Bennett era

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the ninth of an 11-part series previewing the University of New Mexico’s 10 Mountain West Conference opponents, and their nonleague schedule breakdown. The order of MWC teams is publishing daily in reverse order of the preseason media poll. To see list of all previews, CLICK HERE.

Addition by subtraction.

It’s a term many around the UNLV basketball program have used to explain why they think the Runnin’ Rebels, coming off a 25-win season and Mountain West Tournament championship appearance, can be even better this season.

On paper, it’s hard to understand considering the pieces missing from last year’s team are Anthony Bennett, the all-league freshman forward who was the first overall pick in June’s NBA draft; Anthony Marshall, the senior point guard who was the team’s leader; and freshman scorer Katin Reinhardt, who has since transferred to USC.

Earlier this month, third year UNLV coach Dave Rice wouldn’t directly answer the Journal’s question about the “addition by subtraction” label being used for this season, but made it clear he is optimistic about this team.

“I think it’s important to have guys in our program who are committed to being in our program,” Rice said. “I’m grateful for the players that were part of winning 51 games our first two years and helping us get to two NCAA Tournaments, and we just want to build on the success we’ve had and have a good year moving forward.”

In a preseason media poll, the Rebels were picked to finish tied for second with Boise State in the Mountain West, and received the only first place vote among the 24 media ballots that didn’t go to league favorite New Mexico.

Having a roster full of Dave Rice recruits (fifth-year senior Carlos Lopez-Sosa wasn’t recruited by Rice but decided to stay with the program instead of pursuing a graduate transfer to another school) is a big reason why.

“Every player in our program … we’ve recruited to the way we want to play,” Rice said. “They’ve all come to play for me and our staff. So I do think there is a little different dynamic.”

Guard Bryce DeJean-Jones (10.3 points per game) and preseason All-Mountain West forward Khem Birch, the team’s two returning starters, will be the focus, though Birch will need to improve his offensive game if he wants to make a run at league player of the year honors.

“We need him to be a guy that we can throw the ball in the block to and have good things happen,” Rice said.

UNLV also expects a good season from Roscoe Smith, who started on the UConn Huskies 2011 national championship team before transferring to UNLV.

The point guard position may be the key to the season for UNLV. Although Rice said as many as five Rebels are capable of playing minutes at point, the role this season and beyond looks like it could be manned by freshman Kendall Smith, who Rice says is a capable distributor first who can score when needed.

“What I need to move this program forward is to have point guards in our program who understand what they need to be,” Rice said. “I need to have pass-first guys, but also guys who can go get 25 points in a game. But if the next game, the situation calls for you to get two points and 14 assists, he’s OK with that.”

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