Guiremand: Runnin’ Rebels are one deep, talented team

On a Thursday night when the Tigers and Red Sox were battling in Game 5 of the ALCS and one of the NFL’s hottest teams, the Seattle Seahawks, was facing the Arizona Cardinals on TV, about 3,500 die-hard UNLV basketball fans turned out at the Thomas & Mack Center to get their first glimpse of the 2013-14 Runnin’ Rebels.

If they were like me, they came away impressed.

A few observations:

* It took three years but Dave Rice finally has the players run his system. That would be very up-tempo with hard-nosed defense like the Runnin’ Rebel squads Jerry Tarkanian made famous during his Hall of Fame coaching career here.

I’m not saying block out vacation dates in April and start making plans for the Final Four at Jerry’s World in Arlington, Texas. But this is one deep, athletic and talented squad that when it jells – and with so many new faces that might not be until sometime in Mountain West play – look out.
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It’s one thing to watch these guys practice but another to watch them go all out like they did for 20 minutes on the big stage Thursday night. I came away impressed with their athleticism, length, passing and defensive intensity, the latter two of which are usually pretty rare in early public scrimmages.

* We all knew that Khem Birch is an outstanding shot-blocker and post defender. But twice he blocked shots at one end, then raced down court on the fast break and finished with dunks at the other end. It’s not often you see someone 6-foot-9 run the floor like that. He also displayed a few nice moves in the post. I think he has a chance to follow his buddy Anthony Bennett into the NBA Draft lottery.

* Bryce Dejean-Jones overcame a slow start to finish with a game-high 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting and had a couple more shots roll around and come out. He also had five rebounds and looks primed to make a run at the conference scoring title.

* Carlos Lopez-Sosa – remember him? – would be a candidate for most improved player in the Mountain West if they had that award. The 6-foot-11 senior had eight points and seven rebounds in 14 minutes and was active on defense. He’ll be a key contributor this season.

* Roscoe Smith, a chiseled 6-foot-8 junior transfer from UConn, is exactly the kind of player the Rebels have been lacking. He’s a tough, hard-nosed defender and leader who finished with 10 points and two steals. He also has improved his jumper while sitting out.

* Highly-touted JC transfer Jalen Kendrick, a former McDonald’s All-American, didn’t score but made Dejean-Jones work for his points with his defense. He runs the court and also passed it well. Definitely showed the potential to be an impact performer once he gets settled in.

* Once Birch leaves town, don’t be surprised if redshirt freshman Demetris Morant is the next Runnin’ Rebel to lead the Mountain West in blocked shots. He had two blocks in 14 minutes, explodes down the court and is the definition of a quick leaper. I’d love to see Rice put Birch on one side of the lane and Morant on the other in a zone against Air Force and say, “Go ahead and run those backcuts flyboys.” It would be swat city.

* It’s easy to understand why freshman guard Kendall Smith got somewhat overlooked nationally playing on a powerful Oakland Soldiers team that included future NBA lottery picks Aaron Gordon (Arizona) and Ivan Rabb (6-10 C, Class of 2015) as well as sensational shooting guard Jabari Bird (Cal), Class of 2014 manchild Stanley Johnson (Santa Ana, Calif., Mater Dei), small forward Shaqquan Aaron (Louisville) and Oregon-bound Tyrell Robinson … to name a few. But Smith, named Mountain West Newcomer of the Year, lived up to his “K-Smooth” nickname. He is an excellent passer and heady floor leader who can also drill jumpers.

* Good luck trying to pick a starting point guard. JC transfer Deville Smith, who finished with 9 points (3-of-5 3-pointers) has that rare fifth-gear pushing the ball up the court and shot the ball well from the perimeter. Sophomore Daquan Cook was also outstanding and finished with a scrimmage-best five assists to go along with two steals. Kendall Smith also could play here. And what happens if Fresno State transfer Kevin Olekaibe gets his eligibility waiver from the NCAA? Lots of nice options.

* I was much more impressed than I thought I would be with Dantley Walker, the 5-foot-11 guard who starred at tiny Lincoln County High School and just returned from a two-year LDS Church mission. He’s a better athlete than I expected, has a great feel for the game and can really drill it from the perimeter. You can never have enough good shooters – remember that Mike Rose guy who came off the bench to hit eight 3-pointers for BYU against UNLV a few years back? — and Walker is certainly that. I predict he’ll become a big fan favorite.

* Forward Jamal Aytes, a late signee who will be counted on to provide depth up front, has already made big strides since when I saw him play in late July with his Dream Vision AAU team. He looks quicker and more than held his own inside defensively.

SCRIMMAGE NOTES: For those keeping score, the Scarlet team, led by Dejean-Jones (12) and Deville Smith (9), defeated the Gray, 36-27. … Tarkanian watched the game at center court and was honored before the start of the festivities. … Bishop Gorman 6-foot-11 center Stephen Zimmerman, regarded by some as the top prospect in the Class of 2015, watched the scrimmage in Gucci Row with his parents. Another key UNLV recruiting target, Findlay Prep guard Rashad Vaughn, sat two seats down. … Zimmerman had a boot on his right foot but his mother Lori tweeted it was just precautionary for a sprained ankle. Go ahead and exhale Gorman fans. … The Runnin’ Rebels play their first exhibition game on Nov. 1 against Dixie State at the Thomas & Mack at 8 p.m.

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