Rebels rebuild with strong recruiting class
LAS VEGAS (AP) UNLV's fourth season under coach Dave Rice will be a fresh start of sorts, with no returning starters and a roster full of new players.
Given the way last season went, not to mention the tumultuous offseason, the Runnin' Rebels are looking forward to a clean slate.
Headed by one of the nation's top recruiting classes, talented-but-young UNLV is hoping to put last season's disappointments behind and get back to the NCAA tournament.
''We like this group a lot,'' Rice said. ''It's a group that doesn't have a whole of experience, but it's a group that's hungry, that's energetic, extremely coachable. It may take a little time for us to find our way, but I've said to our guys that we're never going to make that an excuse.''
Last season was a difficult one for Rice and the Rebels, filled with benchings, suspensions, dissention and no postseason for the first time since 2009.
The regular starters from that team are all gone, one to graduation, two to transfers, with Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith each bypassing their senior seasons for a shot at the NBA.
In their place are seven returning players who will have to play much bigger roles and eight new players.
Senior Jelan Kendrick, who started eight games, is the leading returning scorer after averaging 6.3 points per game last season. Christian Wood, a 6-foot-11 sophomore, should put up bigger numbers with more playing time. Guard Kendall Smith started 13 games as a freshman, but junior guard Daquan Cook is out for the season after tearing his right ACL.
Joining them is a recruiting class rated top 10 nationally by most services.
Shooting guard Rashad Vaughn has the skills and work ethic to be one of the nation's best freshmen, while forwards Dwayne Morgan and Goodluck Okonoboh are expected to have an immediate impact. Cody Doolin, a transfer from San Francisco, also should give UNLV stability at point guard.
Of course, with this many new players and so many underclassmen in big roles, it could take a little while for the Rebels to mesh, which doesn't figure to be easy with a non-conference schedule that's among the nation's toughest.
''Anything we lack in experience, we need to more than much up for in hard work and team chemistry, and this is a team that has those components,'' Rice said.
Here a few more things to watch out for with UNLV in 2014-15:
TOUGH SCHEDULE: About that schedule. Rice likes to test his teams with tough non-conference schedules and worked up a doozy this season. Early on, the Rebels will face Stanford in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in Brooklyn, New York, with a likely matchup against No. 4 Duke the next day. UNLV also has a home game against No. 2 Arizona on Dec. 23 and plays No. 5 Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse 12 days later. The tough schedule could help the Rebels in terms of RPI rating for the NCAA Tournament, but also could put an early-season dent in their confidence.
SHARING THE BALL: In Rice's first two seasons, UNLV was second and 10th nationally in assists. Last season, the Rebels dropped all the way to 121st. While assists aren't the only indicator of how well a team is playing, Rice said the precipitous drop was symptomatic of the Rebels' lack of cohesiveness. Adding Doolin should go a long way toward getting them to share again. A three-year starter at USF, he averaged 13 points and 7 assists last season while providing steady leadership at the point.
FRONTCOURT DEPTH: A big issue for the Rebels could be a lack of frontcourt depth. Between Birch and Smith, UNLV lost nearly 23 points and 21 rebounds per game. Birch also was the Mountain West's two-time defensive player of the year, leaving Las Vegas with 192 blocked shots in two seasons. Wood, Morgan and the shot-blocking Okonoboh will be UNLV's main inside players, but Rice will likely spend the early part of the season working out the rest of the rotation, possibly going with a small lineup at times.
VAUGHN'S ARRIVAL: Rice said Vaughn has a chance to be a special player at UNLV and he's not just saying that because the freshman is playing for him. The 6-foot-6 guard from the Minneapolis area was one a top-10 national recruit, an athletic, high-scoring player who was recruited heavily by all the top programs. Most players have an adjustment period between high school and college basketball, but don't expect Vaughn's to take long.