Rice can use bench to impose discipline, motivate Rebels

He kept coming back to the same points.

Play hard. Play together.

The request might seem overly simplistic for college basketball players owning a wealth of ability, but Dave Rice knows that continuity most often comes before prosperity.

You can’t run before you walk and you can’t run to the level Rice desires before you’re comfortable with the guys around you.

“We’re going to make mistakes early on playing the pace we want and I can live with that,” Rice said. “We have a ways to go. But it’s critically important that if we’re going to make progress and get better, I have to do a good job managing things like us playing hard and together. We have a number of new faces, but we also have depth. That gives me the opportunity to make sure guys understand the importance of playing hard.

“There is not a guy in our program that has been guaranteed a starting spot or one minute of playing time. The only thing that has been guaranteed all of them is the opportunity to be part of this program and to help us build it.”

He’s different entering a third season as head coach of his alma mater at UNLV, more demanding, less tolerant of those who don’t or won’t give maximum effort at all times.

The Rebels haven’t always done that under Rice. That’s ultimately on him. It’s all on him.

That’s the job.

The journey with this particular team begins at 8 p.m. today against Dixie State at the Thomas &Mack Center in the first of two exhibitions the Rebels will play before opening their season, two chances for Rice to see how those new faces react to lights being turned on and seats being filled.

Rice could have chosen the more traditional preseason route of college teams nowadays — play one exhibition and also a closed-door scrimmage against another major program — but decided instead to see his team compete in front of a crowd twice before doing it for real against Portland State on Nov. 8.

Makes sense. The Rebels are again a Mountain West contender on paper, but the next time a sheet of Mead wins anything will be the first. Two starters return to a roster that will include 10 new players, meaning who fits where and for how long on the floor each night won’t be decided in the short term.

“I think it’s going to be important for us to see different rotations and combinations and for guys to understand that if they don’t play hard, they won’t play,” Rice said. “We have a number of guys who have never played at this level. But I like the mindset that we will run and press and push tempo. We have a group that was recruited to that system. Conditioning has been a huge emphasis for us. We’re not in as good a shape as we need to be, but our guys have worked hard. I like our group.”

As long as — once again — it plays hard and together.

I’m convinced it’s not a forced tactic, that Rice’s less lenient approach to players is more about him understanding those areas UNLV must improve to succeed than trying to be someone he’s not. Many have wanted Rice to be more animated on the sidelines, more demonstrative in his actions, more willing to get in a guy’s face when a fifth consecutive bad shot is taken. But players see through fake. Rice doesn’t need to act the part of lunatic to get his point across.

Limiting one’s playing time will do just fine, thank you.

His will be a resume ultimately judged on how the Rebels perform in March, where they have lost consecutive opening-round games of the NCAA Tournament under Rice’s watch.

Expectations are much higher.

That’s the job.

Better effort and harmony won’t necessarily help the Rebels defend or run better, but they certainly can’t hurt. UNLV has just two players — senior Carlos Lopez-Sosa and freshman Dantley Walker — not recruited to the program by Rice. This, more than ever, is his team.

He is sure those who didn’t always give 110 percent and wouldn’t always adopt a team-first attitude are gone, but that’s another contention that must be proven. Things always seem that way before a game has been played each season.

But while the potential for UNLV appears outstanding on paper, Mead can’t beat the Arizonas and New Mexicos of the world.

“I know the guys are taking things very seriously,” Rice said. “I can coach this group a lot differently than I coached the last two years. It’s not a contrived approach. It’s genuine. My feeling is that team chemistry lends itself to playing hard. If we make our mistakes by playing hard, I’m OK with that.

“Playing hard is a skill that can be developed over time.”

That time begins tonight under the lights.

A week from now, it happens for real.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.