LAS VEGAS – When forward Mike Moser dove for a loose ball, only to collide with California guard Brandon Smith, it should have been the end of UNLV’s season.
Moser, who entered the season as a legitimate All-America candidate, had dislocated his right elbow less than five minutes into the highly-anticipated game at Haas Pavilion. The redshirt junior transfer from UCLA had gashed the Golden Bears for an efficient 14 points and eight rebounds the year before. Who could replace that production, on a team almost completely unrecognizable from the season before?
Cal found out, as did the nation, in the form of a 6-foot-8 freshman forward from Brampton, Ontario named Anthony Bennett. He scored 25 points, his career-high to that point, and had 13 rebounds in a performance that established him as a force in college basketball.
“He had played good games before, but Dec. 9 on ESPNU was a breakout game for him where the nation saw this is a young guy who is a special player. He was fantastic in that game,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said Monday afternoon, wearing a grey tracksuit in his office at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Now, Bennett again faces Cal in an unexpected NCAA Tournament second round rematch, this time a known entity. He is a finalist for the Wooden Award, presented to the top player in college basketball. He has made two Freshman All-America teams and was named Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year. He is regarded as a likely top-five draft pick.
“It won’t be the same as last time,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said of Bennett on Tuesday. “I think he surprised us a little bit just with how good he was.”
This time there will be no such naiveté regarding the diversity of his game, from his effective jump shot to physicality around the rim. Bennett even leads the Runnn’ Rebels in three-point field-goal percentage, making just under 38 percent of his looks from long range.
Bennett has also grown up, having spent nearly three months as “the first name on everyone’s scouting report,” Rice said, and learning how to handle that added defensive attention.
“Teams were physical with him. Teams weren’t guarding him with one guy, they were guarding him with multiple guys and sometimes multiple guys on the same possession, and so it was an adjustment for him,” Rice added.
He has also learned to play through a shoulder injury that hampered him late in the season, but responded by averaging 19 points and 7.6 rebounds during three MWC Tournament games, with UNLV falling to New Mexico in the championship.
Bennett isn’t the same player he was before, but Rice said he is still the same person. Attention and expectations have not changed him.
“For as talented as a player as he is, he is a very humble young man,” said Rice, who knows something about success and superstars, having played on UNLV’s 1990 National Championship team.
“I tell this story all the time. The first game of the year, I’m standing up and he was out of the game. I feel someone walk to the right of me and I think, ‘Who is that?’ And it is Anthony Bennett and he is getting up to greet someone who is coming off the floor.
“When I sub him and he comes out of the game, he makes sure that he gives a high-five to everybody on our bench, including support staff. It’s just the kind of teammate he is.”
It is the same kind of mentality Rice later describes when talking about Moser, making it easy to see how UNLV finished 25-9 with its most talented veteran player sidelined for four games and never able to consistently recapture his pre-injury form.
Moser’s injury should have been the end of a season. Instead, it signaled the arrival of Bennett and its continuation.
Dan Greenspan writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.