As critics take shots at coach Dave Rice, whose approval ratings are dropping following UNLV’s back-to-back home losses, he’s getting too familiar with the downside of a high-profile position.
Rice has spent the past five days examining every aspect of the basketball program, including himself.
“I always look in the mirror first. It starts with me,” he said. “When your team doesn’t play right, then I’m not doing a good enough job.”
If the Rebels are a reflection of their coach, they will get proactive about reversing a sudden trend of negativity brought on by upsets at the hands of Air Force and UNR.
The Falcons stopped UNLV’s seven-game win streak on Jan. 4, and to emphasize that game was not just an aberration, the Wolf Pack rolled into Las Vegas and dealt the Rebels another humbling blow. During a bye weekend in the Mountain West schedule, Rice promised a return to “training camp.”
Now, he’ll see if his methods produce results. UNLV (10-6, 1-2) is facing the toughest week of its schedule with trips to New Mexico (12-3, 3-0) on Wednesday and 10th-ranked San Diego State (14-1, 3-0) on Saturday.
“When you lose a game, you wish you could play the next day because the sting is there,” Rice said. “But it was probably a good thing to have time off.”
He started over on Thursday by holding individual meetings, allowing each player to air concerns and discuss any issues.
“I want interaction. I thought it was important,” he said. “I wanted them to talk freely and tell me what they thought and how they could help fix it or how they thought I could help fix it.
“I said, ‘Do we like each other? How is our locker room?’”
Rice said he exited the meetings with answers and was satisfied that team chemistry is solid. After breaking down game film, he couldn’t say the same about the team defense, which allowed Air Force and UNR to shoot a combined 48 percent from the field.
So a return to training camp meant extensive film study and practicing basic drills that were taught in October, such as help defense and stopping dribble penetration while guarding against lapses in intensity.
“Getting back to defensive fundamentals,” Rice said. “It was bad team defense just in general. The only thing you can do is go back to fundamentals. I was not satisfied with our effort at times in both games.”
UNLV’s problems recent problems were not limited to one end of the floor. Rice also went back to the drawing board to manage shot selection, offensive spacing and ball movement.
“When we play together and play hard, we’re good,” he said. “It was a total lack of execution in the Air Force game. It’s inexcusable.”
The only obvious personnel change Rice plans to make is at point guard, where junior Deville Smith is back in as the starter and struggling freshman Kendall Smith is returning to a reserve role.
On Sunday, Rice ran the team through a scrimmage that was a simulated game. He said he heads to Albuquerque with confidence in the Rebels’ ability to recapture the swagger they played with in December.
After a five-point loss at No. 1 Arizona on Dec. 7, UNLV won its next seven games by an average of 20.2 points, albeit against a soft schedule.
Junior forward Roscoe Smith and junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones each talked about the benefits of a weekend off and the opportunity to get back on track by upsetting the Lobos.
Rice said he believes the Rebels, who are 6-5 at the Thomas &Mack Center, are suited to play better on the road because of a sense of team unity that was missing last season.
“We will have five guys on the floor that will fight,” Rice said. “We aren’t broken. I don’t think that we’re that far away.”
The critics will remain skeptical until proven otherwise.
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.