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March 4, 2012
The Pac-12's recent malaise has enabled teams such as UNLV and San Diego State emerge as glamour basketball programs of the West. Both teams are recruiting in such a manner that could allow them to remain in the spotlight much longer.
UNLV and San Diego State each has a 2012 commitment from a top-50 prospect, and neither school is done recruiting yet.
Two weeks ago, 6-foot-8 forward Winston Shepard of Henderson (Nev.) Findlay Prep announced he would attend San Diego State. UNLV already has signed 6-foot-5 guard Katin Reinhardt of Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei. Shepard is the nation's No. 40 prospect and Reinhart is 45th, but both players are expected to move up the rankings when the final Rivals150 is released in April.
If Shepard signs with San Diego State as expected, this would mark the first time that two top-50 recruits have chosen Mountain West teams in the same year since the current version of Rivals.com started producing a college basketball Rivals150 in 2003. San Diego State's a lame-duck Mountain West member that will join the Big West in the 2013-14 season.
UNLV also remains very much in the mix for Las Vegas (Nev.) Bishop Gorman forward Shabazz Muhammad - the nation's No. 1 overall prospect - though his situation has grown increasingly uncertain. CBSSports.com reported this week that the NCAA has warned schools recruiting Muhammad that the 6-foot-6 swingman's amateur status and college eligibility could be in question. The NCAA is investigating the relationship between Muhammad and two financial advisers.
"I think people are looking at style of play now more than just trying to go to a big conference," Reinhardt said. "They want to fit in and try to get a lot of playing time as a freshman, and I think that's a huge key now too. They want to go in and play.''
These schools aren't overtaking the Pac-12's biggest names in recruiting. On the surface, it would seem that the Pac-12's problems on the court this season haven't affected their recruiting at all.
Arizona currently has the top 2012 recruiting class in the nation, though that could change after the spring signing period. UCLA already signed the nation's No. 2 prospect in Jersey City (N.J.) St. Anthony guard Kyle Anderson and remains in the Muhammad sweepstakes as well.
[ More UNLV: Rebel-Net.com ]
But a closer look suggests the rest of the Pac-12 is struggling a bit.
Arizona is the lone Pac-12 school among the nation's top 10 teams in the Rivals 2012 recruiting standings. No. 11 UCLA is the only other Pac-12 program in the top 25. Rivals also released early 2013 team rankings last month, and not a single Pac-12 team was in the top 15.
"The Pac-12 is sort of lagging behind," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer said. "The Pac-12 and the SEC, as far as the BCS conferences, they're at the bottom in recruiting for 2012."
This may be a reflection of the Pac-12's struggles on the floor.
No Pac-12 teams are included in either of the major national rankings. The conference will struggle to earn more than two NCAA tournament invitations this season, though Arizona, California, Washington, Oregon and Colorado all have at least a remote shot of earning at-large bids.
The Pac-12 has only the 10th-best RPI of any conference and trails so-called midmajor leagues such as the Mountain West (fifth), Atlantic 10 (seventh), Missouri Valley (eighth) and Conference USA (ninth). This will mark the third straight season that the Pac-12 has the lowest-rated RPI of the six major conferences.
UCLA, the most storied program in the conference, has been particularly disappointing. The Bruins dropped four of their first five games this season and carried a 17-13 record into the weekend. UCLA's program was the subject of Sports Illustrated report this week that detailed off-court disciplinary problems that included the use of alcohol and drugs. UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero told reporters this week that he would talk to coach Ben Howland about his future after the season ended, though he also referred to the Sports Illustrated allegations as "a few isolated incidents."
UCLA's slump may have hurt its chances at landing Muhammad.
"At one time UCLA was considered the leader for Muhammad," Meyer said. "Things really shifted when UCLA had a rough start. It really helped UNLV and it helped Kentucky. Most people think that with Muhammad, Kentucky and UNLV are the two leaders right now."
Even if UNLV doesn't add Muhammad, it still would have a solid 2012 class that includes 6-8 power forward Demetris Morant (the nation's No. 150 prospect) and 6-1 point guard DaQuan Cook to go along with Reinhardt. UNLV also already has a commitment from 6-8 junior power forward Christian Wood, the No. 48 player in the 2013 class.
UNLV has utilized an uptempo attack under Dave Rice, who was hired last summer and immediately pledged to make sure the Runnin' Rebels lived up to their name. That approach helped win over Reinhardt.
Reinhardt also was well aware that Rice was a former BYU assistant who helped Jimmer Fredette develop into a Naismith and Wooden award winner. Reinhardt, like Fredette, is a high-scoring guard and dangerous shooter.
[ Watch: Katin Reinhardt video feature ]
"Coach Rice coached Jimmer Fredette the year before, and I saw his effect on Jimmer's game and just the offense that BYU had," Reinhardt said. "It's kind of the same style of offense but a little different now at UNLV. I look at their style of play and I think that style of play would really fit me. It's more of a fast-paced game than some of the Pac-12 schools that I was looking at.''
But the jewel of the class is Shepard, who is expected to become the highest-rated prospect to sign with San Diego State since Rivals.com started covering college basketball recruiting. Kawhi Leonard, an All-American and first-round draft pick last year, was the No. 48 prospect in the 2009 class.
Although Shepard plays for a Nevada-based prep power, he actually grew up in Texas and didn't closely follow the Pac-12 or San Diego State. He always figured he would sign with Texas, since both of his parents played basketball for the Longhorns.
[ More San Diego State: AztecSportsReport.com ]
He followed San Diego State's run to an NCAA Sweet Sixteen spot last year and decide to head west after seeing how he might thrive under Aztecs coach Steve Fisher. Shepard's game has drawn comparisons to Jalen Rose, the former NBA guard who starred for Fisher's Fab Five teams at Michigan in the early 1990s.
Assuming Shepard signs with the Aztecs, this would mark the first time in the Rivals era that San Diego State has added two Rivals150 prospects straight out of high school in the same year. San Diego State's impending move from the Mountain West Conference to the weaker Big West clearly hasn't caused any problems on the recruiting trail thus far.
"That wasn't a concern at all," Shepard said. "The thing with Coach Fisher, even this year, people were calling this a rebuilding year and things like that, and they still went out and scheduled tough opponents and went out and played people at their home. I figure with the way he schedules, I'll get all the exposure I need."
He's not the only player to decide he can get enough exposure without joining a major conference.