LAS VEGAS -- The third season of a coaching tenure often can be the defining one. When a coach is hired, he basically rolls with what he inherits. The second season can be a difficult management exercise as upperclass returnees mix with guys brought in by the new regime. By the third campaign, a coach has two full recruiting classes and ample enough experience in the league, so the pressure then grows for him to show what his program really is going to be.
Dave Rice is now entering his third season at UNLV after chalking up 51 wins and two Round of 64 NCAA tournament exits to double-digit seeds. Similar to what Josh Pastner has experienced at Memphis, what looks solid on paper doesn’t necessarily mean expectations have fully been met. Rice has had the talent to win more big games than he has so far, but his own learning curve has been part of why the Rebels have fallen short of the regular consistency truly elite programs have. In his first year, the transition to a more uptempo approach left his roster gassed down the stretch. Last season, there was more talent and depth, but a lack of cohesiveness left the team less than its parts.
Rice certainly shouldn’t apologize for what he’s accomplished so far, but now the stakes are being raised. Entering a season he’s openly targeted, Rice believes he has what he needs, both to win games and deliver a clear imprint of what his version of Rebels basketball should be.
“I’ve said from Day 1 that, in terms of on the court, winning is always first, but style of play is incredibly important, especially at UNLV,” Rice said. “We feel like we have a roster in place this year where we can play truly how we want to play.”
Given the presence of Anthony Bennett, the future No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft, there is reason to believe last season should have been a bit better. Basketball is a team game, though, where hierarchy and roles are crucial to success. Between injuries, transfers and, frankly, somewhat of a rotisserie-style talent grab by Rice and Co. to help upgrade the roster, last season’s Rebels were consummate square pegs in round holes. While a full house may beat a straight on The Strip, a 1-2-3-4-5 at the Mack is going to play better than three 2s and a pair of 4s.
Combine all of the other legitimate issues -- upperclassmen blending with newcomers, midseason roster shuffling, the lack of a true point guard, conflicting agendas over roles and playing time -- and Rice got a two-semester PhD-level course in expectations management.
“Quite frankly, last year, I had too many guys,” Rice said. “And I think that got back to the idea that I believed that we as a program would do a better job of making individual sacrifices for the good of the team, and we didn’t do as good a job of that as I thought.”
This season will be an interesting test of what Rice has learned, as he will once again have a ton of options to consider as he manages his roster. While Bennett left for NBA riches, Mike Moser and Katin Reinhardt transferred, and senior guards Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins are gone, too, there are a slew of transfers now eligible. Add Roscoe Smith (UConn), Jelan Kendrick (Memphis/Ole Miss), DeVille Smith (Mississippi State) and Kevin Olekaibe (Fresno State) to go with Khem Birch, Bryce Dejean-Jones, Savon Goodman, Carlos Lopez-Sosa and whoever else emerges to claim some minutes, and UNLV has the quality, depth and flexibility to be a handful to handle, both for opponents and for Rice.
Despite the number of newcomers, though, expect the overall vibe to be better this season, because most of the transfers were part of practices last season and the overall core fits together better than it did last year. While both Dejean-Jones and Smith quelled thoughts of rampant chemistry issues on last season’s team -- “It wasn’t really guys not liking each other, things like that. It was more guys' first year playing with each other,” Dejean-Jones said -- it seems like there is more comfort with this current group pulling together toward common goals.
That may be the biggest key for the Rebels as they look to topple New Mexico’s growing dominance atop a Mountain West conference that has a lot of transition going on. The Lobos lost Tony Snell early to the NBA and have a coaching switch to former lead assistant Craig Neal. Colorado State, Air Force and San Diego State were hit hard by graduation, although the latter two clubs still have some promising talent and you never count out a coach as good as Larry Eustachy.
There are other threats (first and foremost, a very good Boise State team), but UNLV, if everything goes to plan, should be in contention for the league title. That is, if the Rebels, in what still should be a deep and competitive league, can use better roster fit to find the consistency that has eluded them so far under Rice.
“It’s a very big advantage,” Dejean-Jones said about year’s expected role definition. “Guys are just going to be comfortable at the positions they’re at, and everybody’s just going to try to contribute to keep winning.”