State of the Rebels: Is UNLV going the right direction?

Fans streamed out of the Thomas & Mack Center in a bad mood. A midweek late game collapse had fans seething – many congregated near the new Jerry Tarkanian statue to lament how far things have fallen since the Hall of Fame coach roamed the sidelines.  The comparison to current coach Dave Rice was often not a kind one.  This was in November, after either loss to Arizona State or Illinois, or in January after UNR or even last week after SDSU.

Often times the media will poll the public on “right track/wrong track” for presidents, governors, etc.  Let’s assume Dave Rice’s approval ratings are not high at the moment, and separate that from momentary displeasure to a larger question on the program – is it headed the right direction or wrong direction?  I am not having this debate with the Rice haters/Theus stalkers – this is for reasonable fans who are not happy with Coach Rice and/or the program.  Let’s have it out…

Is UNLV on the right track?

If you believe it is on Wrong Track you might use these points (skip this section if you don’t want to be depressed):

  1. The most home losses in the storied 30-year history of the Thomas & Mack Center. 9 total if you include pre and post season games. That’s awful.
  2. Fewest field goals assisted since the 1980s for a program built on sharing the ball offensively.
  3. Fewest turnovers forced since the 1980s for a program built on pressure defense.
  4. The worst 3-point shooting UNLV team since the 2001-02 season
  5. A 6-year low in overall attendance, including no sellouts for the first time in four years.
  6. A year after a losing two rotation players to transfer, the Rebels might see several more depart early including juniors Bryce Dejean-Jones and Roscoe Smith (can’t rule out others of course)
  7. A season sweep by both SDSU and UNR – I don’t know if that sets any records, but it’s never good, particularly coming in the same week.
  8. Rebels lose to Air Force for just the third time ever at the Thomas & Mack Center.
  9. UNLV ends a four-year streak of NCAA tournament appearances, and may even end a run of 7 straight post-season appearances ( I do not personally believe an NIT bid is likely).
  10. The Rebels consistently struggle to score in the half court, particularly against zones (in some games), and are widely inconsistent offensively even within games
  11. As more players recruited by Dave Rice have entered the program, results have not improved on the court at all.
  12. Rebels have failed to win the MW tournament for six consecutive years despite hosting the event.
  13. Late season meltdowns within the locker room and on the court have contributed to a feeling of the program being rudderless.  Rice’s miscalculations with certain guys in recruiting have cost him dearly.


I personally believe the answer is Right Track, and the program will be on stronger footing going forward.  This is my argument why…

 1.    Every program not named Kansas or Duke experiences down years, making the NCAA tournament is extremely difficult to do, and the Rebels have frankly done so with teams that were not particularly special, but just good enough.  Programs like UConn, North Carolina, Kentucky, UCLA and Indiana have very recently missed the tournament or will do so this year.  UNLV has had disappointing seasons every year since the 2008 Round of 32 loss to eventual champion Kansas..  Rebel fans don’t consider any year without March wins a success, but the fact is, making it into the dance is hard to do, let alone win there.

2.    Dave Rice is learning on the job – that sounds like a negative, but when you hire any first year head coach, it’s almost impossible for this not to be the case.  I believe some first year coaches look better when they have older, high IQ players particularly in the backcourt.  A true measure of a coach is how the respond when they have to reload the program – and that is a learning curve.  I believe Rice’s reloading needs to be complete in 2014-15 and we will see what happens.

–        Coach Rice has shown growth in the types of players he recruits, going from taking just the most talented he could get (to build UNLV up as a destination for more talent) to zeroing in on recruits who are more skilled, more well rounded and more stable (i.e. fewer transfers).  He is also bringing in more guys who like to play defense and focusing on the right kind of point guard to bring it all together.

–        Rice has also taken an increasingly tougher stance on discipline, again something I think was needed earlier, but he has evolved in terms of what he will tolerate.  Suspending Dejean-Jones may or may not have cost the Rebels a win in Reno, but a message was sent to the entire team in showing that he was willing to take a loss. I think issues will be dealt with sooner in the future – Rice is too smart to not have learned that lesson this season.

–        Finally to continue his growth, I would like to see Coach Rice bring in a veteran coach to help advise him.  Again it would be setting ego aside and I really hope that he does this – to set the staff up as well as possible for 2014. With Schroyer likely leaving (per media reports) this is the time to create a staff that shores up Rice’s weaknesses.

3.   Dave Rice is still the right guy for the job.  If you run a business as I do, you know that sometimes you hire cheaper and less experienced people not JUST to save money, but also if you believe the ceiling is much higher than with someone with more experience.  I strongly believe the ceiling is higher with Rice than any other coach UNLV could’ve actually procured then and probably now.  Coach Rice understands at a deep level what Runnin’ Rebel basketball is supposed to be, while most coaches see the Kruger level for the program as an acceptable place to be (regardless of what they might say).  Rice knows this is a program that should be a national one, and competing for the best recruits and playing against the best competition.

4.   The argument that “Dave Rice can’t coach” is simply not true.  The fact is he went 51-19 the first two years, including out-coaching some of the best in the game in some games.  Coaching and recruiting cannot be separated in college basketball, and it’s just disingenuous when people try. Some coaches are perceived as better because they do more with what their inferior recruiting provides.  Others, like Rice, recruits at an elite level, which creates elite expectations (and more issues to deal with) – and requires more adjustment.  Coaches like Scott Drew, Rick Barnes, John Calipari and even Steve Fisher have at times been criticized as weak on Xs and Os, but ultimately when they have players they win games.  Rice’s weaknesses are in putting faith in the wrong guys more than schematic.  You have to have a strong sense of who fits your program and who doesn’t.  I think Rice has learned that the hard way.

5.   A coach never looks good when he doesn’t have a point guard.  Rice didn’t go get one on day one, and it was a mistake in my opinion. The poor play against a zone, the lack of execution down the stretch, the inability to contain guards or make critical free throws – all comes down to a floor leader/coach on the floor/point guard.  Have to have one to be good in basketball.

6. The 2014 class is the best freshman group in UNLV history.  And more over it’s an excellent mix.  A true point guard with experience who makes people better.  An explosive scorer with size who can actually make the long ball consistently, and is a good defender.  A versatile forward who can score and has the potential to be an elite defender.  An elite shot blocker and above the rim athlete.  All good teammates, and bringing diverse skill sets to the table.  The Rebels need to get Khem Birch back and at least a majority of the back court to maintain some continuity and develop players for the future.

7. The schedule is finally getting back to the UNLV level.  Kansas. Duke. Arizona.  That’s all in one year.  Plus a trip to Maui coming up and potentially more high level games – the staff has sold recruits on playing in the bright lights and we will see very quickly beginning with November’s trip to Brooklyn.  UNLV’s 2012-13 schedule was too weak and allowed no margin for error after early stumbles.


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MW Semi-Finals are set. UNLV-SDSU III.

by Shawn Cunningham ( @vegasrebelfan )

Day 2 and the MW quarter finals are completed. With 6 seeded Boise advancing it can’t be called chalk anymore, but in reality there have been no upsets in the Mountain West tournament to date. 7 total games in two days. 7 favorites have won (though not all covered). New Mexico handled Fresno as expected, UNLV played a fairly predictable contest vs Wyoming (collapse included) and SDSU hammered Utah State (albeit by an unexpected margin).

I expect the trend of no upsets to continue for the rest of the tournament – culminating with a favored New Mexico beating SDSU on Saturday.

What about UNLV?! I am by no means writing off tomorrow, but it’s just hard to find any backing for an argument in favor of a Runnin’ Rebel win. Historically SDSU has dominated UNLV in this event (four game win streak), the Rebels were swept by the Aztecs this season, SDSU is a better team than UNLV in most statistical categories, and SDSU has proven it can win away from home while UNLV struggles to win at the Mack. UNLV’s guards have struggle mightily against SDSU’s size and length to out the ball in the basket.

Another issue for the Rebels is the “it” factor or “x” factor, or whatever you want to call it. Some teams simply can rise to the occasion and win the games they absolutely have to. UNLV this year is just the opposite of that. Outside the UNM road win, every critical game on UNLV’s schedule was a loss, regardless of where it was played. It’s this habit that has most sucked the wind out of the sails of Rebel fans (culminating in a small home crowd today for a critical game).

Guys like Roscoe Smith, Kevin Olekaibe and Bryce Dejean-Jones have to play like this is their last game in college for the Rebels to advance (because it might be). Really UNLV needs at least one guard to have a big game in my opinion, and we all know Bryce Dejean-Jones is most capable of doing so.  He was excellent against Wyoming – always at his best when he’s as a playmaker instead of shot taker. I will maintain my feeling from last week’s game – BDJ needs to score his average 14+ points but more importantly needs to get 5+ assists and 5+ rebounds for the Rebs to win.  He had 4 assists today but made a few other great plays that a teammate couldn’t finish with a bucket. Can we get today’s BDJ for a second straight game?  However likely or unlikely that is in your judgment – those are UNLV’s chances

Khem Birch is a warrior – he will find a way to hold his own as long as he can walk, but this year’s SDSU-UNLV series is all about the guards. UNLV’s guards must take the responsibility of boxing out, especially if the Rebels zone. Protect the ball, move the ball with the pass, space the floor, and perhaps most importantly, make open shots. SDSU guards so hard that teams rush open shots too. UNLV’s guards have to be poised in this one. I would love for these Rebels to prove me wrong – buck the trends, break the cycle, rise up …. and win.


Random stats:

– UNLV reached the 20 win mark for the 8th consecutive season

– Some history to not repeat … The last time UNLV missed the NCAA tournament – the Rebels were beaten three times by SDSU including twice in a week to end the season
– Dave Rice is now 4-2 in the Mountain West tournament
– 4 seeds are 5-4 all time in the MWC semi finals, and UNLV is 7-4 with any seed in the final four of the event.
– 2 of the first 4 games of the MW tourney set records for largest blowouts ever in the event
– If Friday’s semi finals sell out as expected, it will mark the fourth time in five years the league sold out the Friday night games (18,500 tickets)



Day 1 of the Mountain West Championship

by Shawn Cunningham ( @vegasrebelfan )

All chalk as expected to launch the first year of a new format. For the first time, the league featured multiple “play-in” games to the quarter finals.image

Despite the expected results, we were treated to some nice moments, including consecutive great comebacks (or incredible meltdowns) depending on your perspective.

In game 1, Utah State took control early over Colorado State, then CSU took control for much of the game from mid first half until almost the end.  The Aggies stormed back to erase a 9 point deficit with 90 seconds to go. It was Boise State-like collapse by CSU, which included multiple turnovers, USU timely threes and, worst of all, a horrendous technical by Daniel Bejarano.

For the Aggies they enter Thursday’s matchup with No. 1 seed (and 8th ranked) San Diego State with the best chance at a true upset (6 seed Boise should be favored over 3 Nevada). Utah State pushed SDSU to the brink in Logan and will come in “hot” (having just won a thriller), desperate and capable of knocking down threes. The Aztecs are safely dancing and with a high seed – it wouldn’t be shocking to see them maybe overlook USU a bit. To be clear I am not calling for an upset – I just think this is the likeliest one to occur.

For CSU (16-17), a brutal ending caps a difficult transition year. A returning core of players and promising newcomers should allow the Rams to contend for the NCAA tournament next season.

In game 2, Fresno State came out dead flat. The Bulldogs struggled to finish at the rim, guard the Falcon’s cuts or execute offensively (vs zone or man) for much of the game. Guerrero’s foul trouble in the second half keyed a huge 16-0 run by the Falcons that seemed to put the game out of reach with 10 minutes to go.

Down 56-41, Fresno started turning over Air Force with their press, and the Falcons (who hadn’t led anyone by much of a margin in months) lost their poise when the lead began to shrink. They turned it over for layups, missed numerous critical free throws and Tyler Johnson made back to back threes. Air Force scored just 4 points in the last ten minutes. Ballgame.

For Air Force – I really like Tre Coggins (how does the Academy get talents like him and Lyons in recent years?) and they should be much improved next season. For Fresno, they looked very shaky in this one, and shouldn’t pose much of a threat to No. 2 New Mexico on Thursday.

In Game 3, it was Boise State 25, San Jose State 0 about 8 minutes into the game. Essentially, Boise got a glorified practice while the Spartans got a trip to Vegas. I like Dave Wojcik but he is two years away from even being competitive in the MWC. He’s decided to build a program instead of patching something together with JUCOs and transfers – and this is what that looks like.

By the NUMBERS… UNLV in the Mountain West championship

by Shawn Cunningham ( @vegasrebelfan )

A quick look at the numbers for the Runnin’ Rebels in the 15-year history of the Mountain West Championship tourney are a mixed bag.  While the Rebels boast the all-time best winning percentage in the event (20-8), they have only actually cut down the nets three times – last in 2008.  Overall there are several long-term trends the Rebels will have to shake up in order to pull out a magical run to a league title (and the NCAA tournament).  

 Some numbers for you on UNLV’s history in the Mountain West Championship:
  1. – UNLV’s 8 championship game appearances (most recently 2013) are the most among any prior or current member of the Mountain West.
  2. – UNLV has never won a MW tournament seeded lower than 2nd.
  3. – Good news for optimists – the Rebels have only lost once in the Mountain West quarter-finals.  Bad news is that was in 2009 – UNLV’s last NIT year.
  4. – The Runnin’ Rebels have defeated BYU in the title game in all three of their victories (2000, 2007, 2008).
  5. – The Rebels last won the MWC championship in 2008, behind an upset of top-seeded BYU and tournament MVP Wink Adams
  6. – UNLV has actually lost a remarkable seven consecutive tournaments of any kind held at the Thomas & Mack Center.  Those include the last five MWC tournaments and the 2008 and 2012 Global Sports Classic Thanksgiving events.   Ironically, the Rebels have won the last two tournaments held four miles away at Orleans Arena – over a No. 1-ranked North Carolina and Mississippi State.
  7. – UNLV has upset a higher seed in the tournament semi-finals in 2 of the last 4 years, but fell in the title game both times.
  8. – UNLV is undefeated against Wyoming in this event, and has lost to the Cowboys only twice ever at the Thomas & Mack Center.