UNLV loaded with talent in bid to reach NCAA tourney again
Stephen Zimmerman, Rice's latest and biggest recruit, may be the key to leading the Runnin' Rebels back to the NCAA Tournament.
A 7-foot center from nearby Bishop Gorman High School, Zimmerman is expected to be a game-changer at both ends on a team with a strong returning core.
''He's been an impact player for us since Day 1,'' Rice said. ''He's one of those guys who can have an impact in many ways: team player, great passer, sees the floor and brings a lot of experience. He's one of those freshmen who are college ready, no doubt.''
Even without Zimmerman, the Rebels would have been in pretty good shape.
Vaughn, the 17th overall pick of the NBA draft, and Chris Wood are gone, but UNLV returns four talented sophomores who gained valuable experience last season as Rice tried to rebuild the program from the ground up.
Complementing those young players is a strong group of veterans: Oregon transfer Ben Carter, Rutgers transfer Jerome Seagears, Mercer transfer Ike Nwamu and 6-foot-7 JUCO transfer Tyrell Green. UNLV should also get back Daquan Cook, who missed last season after tearing his ACL but who has also been suspended for at least the non-conference portion of the upcoming season.
The strong freshman class includes athletic forward Derrick Jones, who chose UNLV over several other blue blood programs, and Jalen Poyser could match him dunk for dunk with his way-above-the-rim game.
Zimmerman adds another dimension. The big left-hander has a soft shooting touch, is a superb passer and has a long frame that enhances his shot-blocking ability.
After missing the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons, the expectations in Sin City are that the Runnin' Rebels should be back in the bracket this year.
''I like our personnel, I like our depth and I think last year could be the building block for a breakthrough season this year,'' Rice said.
A few more things to look for from UNLV in the 2015-16 season:
FRONT-LINE MISMATCHES: UNLV's big, athletic front line should cause mismatch problems for every opponent. Zimmerman will be a handful because he's not the typical back-to-the-basket 7-footer, and 6-foot-10 sophomore Goodluck Okonoboh is a good shot-blocker and rebounder. Sophomore Dwayne Morgan should see increased productivity with a bigger role, Green is a superb outside shooter and Carter played in the NCAA Tournament twice with the Ducks before sitting out last season as a transfer.
POINT TAKEN: The addition of San Francisco transfer Cody Doolin last season was expected to give the Rebels the pure point guard they had been missing, but it didn't work out quite like they anticipated. Seagears could be that player for UNLV this season. The 6-foot-1 senior is an excellent passer, could be one of UNLV's best shooters and should be a good fit for the Rebels' up-tempo style after playing at slow-paced Rutgers.
THE SCHEDULE: Rice likes to play a tough non-conference schedule to prepare his team for the Mountain West and boost their NCAA Tournament resume. This season will be no different. The Rebels are in the Maui Invitational, a field that includes Kansas, UCLA and Indiana. UNLV also has a game against Oregon at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, a home game against Arizona State and a difficult road trip to No. 12 Arizona on Dec. 19. The schedule should help the Rebels should they end up on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
VERSATILE MCCAW: When Vaughn went down with a knee injury, fellow freshman Patrick McCaw picked up some of the scoring slack, averaging 12 points per game. He is UNLV's leading returner in scoring (9.6 points per game) and assists (2.7) and is a strong rebounder for a guard. McCaw also is one of the Rebels' best defenders and possibly its most versatile player.