The message is bigger than a 3 or 4 seed in a conference tournament.
It is much bigger than Bryce Dejean-Jones.
How one defines a level of discipline when building a basketball program is as critical over time as how many wins and losses are included on a record.
Dave Rice knows this. Its importance is not lost on him.
“Every individual decision I make in terms of discipline is for that particular situation,” Rice said. “But each decision has an impact on the rest of the team and future teams in terms of my expectations.
“I think we all have ideas about how we would run a program if ever becoming a head coach, but until you actually experience it, you don’t know for sure. I don’t listen to talk radio or read message boards. None of it. I care what people think. I hear the opinions of others. I feel a responsibility to those who hired me to put a quality product on the floor and for our fans who support us and cheer for our players.
“But I need to make these decisions in a way I’m comfortable with and that define me. I have to do things my way. I will do things my way.”
It’s an important position to take and one Rice must own as he continues to navigate his way through what has been a disappointing third year as UNLV’s coach and those seasons to come.
The Rebels play at UNR Saturday night to end a regular season that hasn’t come close to expectations of contending for a Mountain West title.
What’s at stake: The winner receives a No. 3 seed in the conference tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center; the loser drops to the 4-5 game. None of it changes the fact UNLV must win three games in three days next week to qualify for its fifth straight NCAA Tournament.
The Rebels again will be without their leading rebounder (Roscoe Smith, concussion) at the Lawlor Events Center and now without their leading scorer in Dejean-Jones, suspended by Rice on Thursday for conduct detrimental to the team.
It is more an attitude issue with Dejean-Jones than anything else, a frustrated junior wing who in all likelihood won’t return for his senior season. He’s not a bad kid. He didn’t do anything criminal. He goes to class and is on track to graduate and wants to win more than anything else.
But standards for behavior must be followed, and how Rice disciplines different infractions, from being constantly late to team buses or practices, to refusing to shake hands with an opponent after a loss and then immediately departing the arena will more and more determine the type of program he offers.
The suspension of Dejean-Jones should speak as much to UNLV’s current and future players as anyone. They need to hear the message and realize that with destructive actions come consequences.
“I think one thing I have learned in my three years here is I have to do a better job not seeing the best in everybody,” Rice said. “I have always been a person who believes that if you treat people professionally and with respect, that they will abide by your rules and give back. I’ve always thought that if you give a kid a second chance, he will take advantage of it and play hard and go to class and behave and appreciate the opportunity. That’s not always the case.
“I have a big heart. I have empathy for others. But when it comes to discipline and a decision such as the one with Bryce, it is made as much for the future of our program as it is for him, absolutely.”
Rice and Dejean-Jones will meet Monday to discuss the player’s status, and it should be everyone’s hope that the latter can return to the team for the conference tournament and any postseason games beyond it.
Rice isn’t one to bury a kid for losing his temper after a frustrating loss. That’s one strength of UNLV’s coach.
Maybe they decide it’s best to part ways now. Maybe we’ve seen the last of Dejean-Jones in a UNLV uniform.
Maybe he returns for the final handful of games.
Either way, this suspension wasn’t a message solely for him.
It was one for now, tomorrow, the future.
John Wooden said that you discipline those under your supervision to correct, to help, to improve.
Dave Rice is as much a teacher as a coach. He needs to win games. He knows that.
More important, he needs to make it clear how his program will be defined not in the best times, but rather the tough ones.
How it will be viewed not in the face of success, but rather adversity.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.