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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