It’s the same narrative each November, when another UNLV basketball season begins. Dave Rice’s team has more than its share of talented players—guys destined for the NBA, high school All-Americans and role players every team needs to succeed. There’s no reason the Rebels shouldn’t win games, be competitive in the Mountain West and be so damn fun to watch you find yourself searching for tickets. In Rice’s fifth year, this could finally be the Rebel team to equal the hype. I promise.
Twice they’ve made the NCAA Tournament; twice they’ve lost their first game. But the past two years, they wouldn’t have made the tournament if the field of 68 teams was expanded to more than 100.
Last season, when I also felt the Rebels would break through, they fell flat. Despite starting two players currently on NBA rosters, UNLV finished seventh in the 11-team Mountain West with an 18-15 record, and lost for the second straight year at home to UNR. The Rebels were so bad, they had to win a play-in game just to reach the quarterfinals of the Mountain West tournament. Rice, despite getting a contract extension through 2019 less than a year prior, nearly lost his job.
Some Rebel loyalists wish he had. They’re annoyed at the way the team executes at the end of games, and criticize Rice’s management of players and personalities. They claim he lacks charisma. They even question his game-day attire, a conservative look with a white dress shirt, tie and slacks.
This is Rice’s do-or-die season. He either takes these talented pieces and turns his alma mater into a winner—more than making the tourney, winning a game there—or it will be time for someone else to give it a try.
The program’s mediocrity isn’t how anyone envisioned Rice’s tenure after the Rebels upset No. 1 North Carolina in 2011. UNLV won its initial eight games, including the signature victory against the Tar Heels, and Rice appeared to be the program’s savior.
He started his coaching career as an assistant on Jerry Tarkanian’s final UNLV staff in 1992, and hoped his Rebels would resemble Tark’s—they’d play suffocating defense and aggressively push the ball up the court in transition. The Runnin’ Rebels would again be running. But it hasn’t happened, at least not yet.
Crazy as it sounds, the North Carolina win might have been a bad thing. It took the expectations to another level and set Rice up to fail. We forgot that he was a first-time head coach. We forgot that his pay was about $500,000 less than former coach Lon Kruger, a bargain for an athletic department struggling to piece its finances together. We expected more big wins and chances to the storm the court. Instead, there have been head-scratching defeats to inferior opponents, especially at home.
Still, Rice’s skeptics can’t criticize the way he recruits. Though UNLV hasn’t reached the tournament in two seasons, highly ranked players still jump over each other to come to UNLV.
This year, those players—like five-star recruit Stephen Zimmerman Jr. and returning standouts Patrick McCaw and Jordan Cornish—appear to be sold on accomplishing team goals over individual ones. Most important, Rice finally has the personnel to play his style of basketball. The Rebels have a rotation of 10 quality players, with experienced senior transfers Jerome Seagears (Rutgers) and Ike Nwamu (Mercer) leading the way, and plan to play at a fast pace. They’ll press after made baskets and push the ball up the court after turnovers.
Maybe they’ll run all the way to the NCAA Tournament.
UNLV vs. Cal Poly November 13, 7 p.m., $13-$137. Thomas & Mack Center, unlvtickets.com.