In his seventh game as UNLV basketball coach, Dave Rice played the underdog role to perfection, directing his team to a stunning knockout of top-ranked North Carolina.
A little more than two years later, Rice is back in the dog house, so to speak. The Rebels (3-3) never have been bigger underdogs under Rice than they will be Saturday at No. 2 Arizona (8-0).
The Wildcats, led by standout freshman forward Aaron Gordon and junior guard Nick Johnson from Findlay Prep, are expected to be around 15-point favorites over the Rebels in a game that tips at 2:15 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN2.
“It’s a great opportunity and a huge challenge,” Rice said. “Arizona is a national championship contender, without question.”
UNLV was a single-digit ’dog in its 90-80 victory over the Tar Heels on Nov. 26, 2011. That upset, in the championship of the Las Vegas Invitational at Orleans Arena, was the best of Rice’s 54 wins.
This season, November was not a scrapbook of pleasant memories for the Rebels, who lost to UC Santa Barbara, Arizona State and Illinois at the Thomas &Mack Center. The 21-point blowout handed down by the Gauchos was the most lopsided of Rice’s 22 losses.
“We’re disappointed with our record, but the three teams we lost to are good basketball teams,” Rice said. “I don’t want to say it’s acceptable to ever lose a home game.”
It’s up for debate if Rice is taking a good team to Tucson, but he might return from the Rebels’ first trip of the season with some answers.
The Wildcats have passed two stiff tests, winning 69-60 at San Diego State on Nov. 14 and beating Duke 72-66 on Friday in the NIT Season Tip-Off in New York. Johnson, averaging a team-high 17.1 points, scored 15 to spur a big second half that buried the Blue Devils.
Johnson and point guard T.J. McConnell can dissect defenses with dribble penetration, one of many areas of concern for UNLV, which failed to stop the top two guards it has faced, Arizona State’s Jahii Carson and Illinois’ Rayvonte Rice, from getting to the rim.
“I think McConnell is the X-factor for them because he’s what put them over the top,” Rice said. “It’s such a value when you have a quality point guard who realizes there’s so many weapons around him.”
The Rebels’ strength is their front line. Junior forward Roscoe Smith is the nation’s leading rebounder at 16.2 per game, and junior Khem Birch is the nation’s No. 2 shot blocker at 4.7 per game.
Arizona is bigger and arguably more talented up front with the 6-foot-9-inch Gordon, 6-8 Brandon Ashley and 7-foot Kaleb Tarczewski.
“We definitely think we can hang with them,” Smith said. “We’re the underdogs in some people’s eyes, but we’ve got confident guys.”
UNLV has limited opponents to 38.7 percent shooting from the field, but its lack of discipline in half-court sets on both ends of the floor was an eyesore in all three losses.
Rice has emphasized those areas of weakness in practice this week, while continuing to focus on the team’s poor free-throw shooting (82 of 144, .569).
“We shot a zillion free throws and 3-point shots and charted all of that stuff,” Rice said, “and we’ve been doing that all season.
“For what it’s worth, we’re 12th in the country in effective field-goal percentage defense. It’s just numbers, and I get that, but numbers must mean something. For all the talk about us not being a very good defensive team, numbers must mean something.
“We’re a very good half-court defensive team, we’re good in offensive transition, and for us to be the team we have the potential to be, we have to become a better half-court offensive team.”
■ NOTES — Saturday’s game marks the beginning of a four-year contract between UNLV and Arizona. The Wildcats visit the Thomas &Mack on Dec. 23, 2014. ... Rice said the Rebels will play more than two road nonconference games next season, but the only two scheduled as of now are Arizona State and Kansas.
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.