LAS VEGAS -- Dave Rice is, literally, one of the smartest head coaches in the country. As a collegian, Rice was named both California junior college and UNLV student-athlete of the year, and after spending two seasons as a reserve on Jerry Tarkanian's legendary 1990 and '91 teams, he graduated with a 3.95 GPA.
So it's pretty uncommon for Rice to be faced with a puzzle that he's not yet prepared to solve.
That was the situation, though, the other night in his well-appointed office inside the Thomas & Mack Center. The Rebels had just run their record to 10-1 with an easy 73-59 win over Northern Iowa, but the performance had some of the feel of a Wednesday matinee. Usual lead actor Mike Moser remains on the mend following a dislocated elbow, so understudy Khem Birch, still learning his lines, was thrust onto the stage. There was a nice ovation from the audience at the end, but also the feeling that things could have been a bit better had the entire cast been on display. It still hasn't been yet this year, and 11 games into a highly anticipated season, we still don't know exactly what UNLV will ultimately be.
"I thought that it would be three or four games, five games, after Khem became eligible," Rice said when about how long he figured it would take to size up his full options. "Now we've played the last five games without Mike Moser. Khem was very good [Wednesday], he'll just continue to get better. Probably by the time he finally finds his stride, Mike will be back. It's a great situation to have to deal with, but it has been interesting with only having five returning guys on our team who played minutes for us last year."
The number of new faces is part of the problem. The Rebels are integrating three new starters, including two heralded freshmen in Anthony Bennett and Katin Reinhardt (plus USC transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones). The bigger conundrum, though, comes from the positional flexibility many of this season's Rebels have. Their point guard (Anthony Marshall) was a shooting guard last season. His backup (Reinhardt) is also a wing by nature. Bennett, a natural four with a refined perimeter game, has spent a lot of time as the de facto post man. When Moser, also best suited to play power forward, comes back, he'll likely get some minutes at small forward, where this roster doesn't really have a clear standout option.
Apropos of someone who practiced against the Rebels' version of the Amoeba defense (actually invented at Pitt in the early 1970s before former Panthers assistant Tim Grgurich helped install it at UNLV), Rice is trying to execute his vision of Runnin' by creating an amoeba team. When fully healthy, UNLV's roster has more combinations of 1s through 5s than the toughest Sudoku puzzle, and Rice's decisions on how to fit everyone in the boxes will be interesting to watch.
"There's no doubt that there's going to come a time soon that I'm going to have to make hard and fast decisions," Rice said, "but I still do believe because of the versatility of the guys coming off the bench that a lot of my substitutions in particular games are still going to be situational. So it will be an issue of managing, particularly the bench, and make sure those guys understand that to be what we have an opportunity to be this year, guys are just going to have to accept their roles as utility guys, as situation players."
The spin coming from Rice and his players is that the Rebels' incredible amount of flexibility will allow them to handle any style of opponent and provide them with some way to dictate their preferred style. The Rebels can go really big with a frontcourt of Moser, Bennett and then either Quintrell Thomas or Carlos Lopez-Sosa in the post. They can go small by pushing Bennett to the 5 to play with either Moser or Birch, and have a more prolific shooter at the 3. They can dictate defensively on the perimeter by bringing in Justin Hawkins to go with point guard Anthony Marshall, rather than Reinhardt or Jones.
The counter to that is there will be a lot of times where UNLV has more than one player playing out of his natural position, and will be featuring a deep rotation of generalists when basketball often works better with more refined roles and more specific skills. For all of Reinhardt's promise and Dejean-Jones' confidence, both are streaky volume shooters at present. Moser doesn't have consistent range. Marshall has been hot from the outside, but for this offense to click, the point shouldn't also be the best shooter. So will all of this flex and flux be more of a plus or a minus as the season plays out?
"It's a luxury having so many great players on the team. You know you can go in and play your hardest and you know there's someone behind you who's going to do the same, and we're all pretty competitive, so I think it will help us in the long run," Marshall said. "... During summer, you just get the ball and go, so everyone knows how to handle the ball and play different positions and stuff like that. And like I said, we're all pretty unselfish, so if one guy gets the ball, everybody knows they just have to get out and run the lanes."
The Rebels did some running the other night, but a lot of their most impressive work came out of halfcourt sets, which is a nice development. UNLV under Rice has earned a bit of a reputation as a team that you could neutralize if you keep them out of transition. While Northern Iowa was physically overmatched in a lot of spots, it would be a discredit to the overt talent of guys like Bennett and Birch to attribute the Rebels' success solely to physical mismatches. At times on Wednesday, the set offense looked good, and as needed, several guys can put the ball on the floor and find their own offense. Rice came out fairly adamantly in the postgame presser that this wasn't last season's Rebels in this sense.
"I think our halfcourt offense, at least against man-to-man, is as good as anyone we've played against," he said. Certainly some of the junk defenses we've played against, triangle-and-two, the box-and-ones, zones, have had an effect on us and we continue to get better that way, but teams that like to play man-to-man against us, [we're now good] in halfcourt basketball games."
With Moser's return date still unclear and a daunting opening to Mountain West play looming, opinion about the Rebels come the end of January may be quite variable. Early league trips to New Mexico, San Diego State and Colorado State mean a couple losses are possible, but the most important steps next month are to get Moser back and Birch fully up to speed. Then Rice finally will have to address his rotation questions. If he gets the answers right, he could end up looking very smart come March.