Much of the talk of UNLV's exciting upcoming season has centered on the frontcourt, where a handful of players, both new and returning, could make the Runnin' Rebels one of the nation's most exciting teams. Khem Birch transferred in from Pittsburgh. Anthony Bennett was one of the nation's top recruits. Mike Moser has NBA potential and a shot at Mountain West player of the year honors in 2012-13.
It's all youth, excitement, energy and talent in Las Vegas, just they way they like it. It makes UNLV one of the upcoming season's most intriguing teams; just what can second-year coach Dave Rice do with all that skill?
But behind all the visions of fast-break alley-oops, behind all the excitement, are a pair of relatively quiet senior leaders, Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins. Both have been with the program throughout their four-year careers, and both have provided the link between former coach Lon Kruger's slower, more defensive era and Rice's reinvigoration of the "Runnin'" moniker. Both seem preternaturally concerned with their legacies. From the Las Vegas Sun:
“To see where the program was when I first got here, it was a good program but now I feel like we’re making strides to be an elite program,” Marshall said. “To be here from Day 1 to right now and see that transition, it’s amazing and humbling.
“I’m grateful to be a part of it.” [...]
“Just seeing where the program’s been and where it’s headed, it’s on the right path,” Hawkins said. “Me and Anthony keep talking about it all the time. We just want the program to keep going up and up and up.” [...]
“This is one of the reasons I stayed in Las Vegas and wanted to be a Runnin’ Rebel, you know that legacy,” Marshall said. “I wanted to help UNLV get back to those glory days. … Even after me, I feel like we’re going to be a good program."
This is a benefit in two ways. For one, Rice no doubt loves to have accomplished senior players mixed in with his newcomers; that kind of leadership can be the difference between success and failure when this many touted young players are on your roster.
But it's just as important, if not more so, for UNLV's long-term trajectory. At its best, the Rebels are a programed defined by its family -- the ties to Jerry Tarkanian, the former stars coming back for big games, the us-against-the-world atmosphere Tarkanian's teams thrived upon, the legacy (for better and worse) he built in the glory days. Rice has been clear about bringing that tradition to the fore again, but that's much easier said than done.
Marshall and Hawkins get it. Fans will love every bit of this stuff -- it's like red meat for a political constituency -- but in a very tangible way, this kind of perspective can make a huge difference. I remain high on the 2012-13 Rebels. Why wouldn't you be?