CEDAR CITY, Utah — In the offseason, when plans are formed and promises made, coach Dave Rice presented a vision of UNLV attacking with full-court pressure defense and running opponents ragged in offensive transition.
Lately, he has been talking in impressed tones about his team’s half-court defensive efficiency. That’s a positive, but it was not the blueprint, and neither was being in the red in the win-loss columns.
The Rebels barely are pressing and rarely running, ranking No. 252 in Division I in scoring offense at 69.6 points per game.
“I think you will start to see us press more,” Rice said. “We do want to push the ball more and score more points.”
Rice’s plans to go up-tempo could begin to develop today, when UNLV (3-4) faces Southern Utah (1-5) at 4 p.m. at Centrum Arena. The Thunderbirds, undersized and short on talent, have been blown out five times and are allowing 81.2 points.
Southern Utah has been off since its 84-57 loss on Dec. 3 at Cal State Northridge, which is coached by former Rebels great Reggie Theus.
Rice, who beat out Theus for the UNLV job in 2011, has not been able to re-create the offense he coached as an assistant at Brigham Young, where Jimmer Fredette was college basketball’s most sensational shooter.
Kevin Olekaibe, a senior guard who transferred from Fresno State this year, is the Rebels’ top 3-point shooter (20 of 48, 41.7 percent). Without him, a poor-shooting team could be in a serious predicament.
“It’s a whole new team. We’re still positive,” Olekaibe said. “I think we’ve learned from everything, and everybody knows their roles better. Now that we’re seven games in, I think everybody is more comfortable. Three weeks ago, I couldn’t say that.”
Olekaibe is in the designated shooter’s role. His teammates are hitting 27 percent from 3-point range. So, it’s obvious, even this early in the season, that UNLV must find other ways to create offense.
Rice said unforeseen circumstances — a hamstring injury to junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones and a shuffling at the starting point guard position — contributed to him getting away from the plan to press and trap full court. The Rebels’ early-season free-throw woes also hampered their scoring output.
“To be able to press, you have to be able to score at a high rate,” Olekaibe said. “I think we do need to create more opportunities from our defense by pressing.”
But it requires about a nine-man rotation to employ pressure defense effectively for most of 40 minutes, and although UNLV seemed to be ripe with depth in October, Rice has been reluctant to use some reserves for important minutes.
Starting forwards Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith each have averaged more than 30 minutes per game, and reserves Chris Wood, Carlos Lopez-Sosa, Demetris Morant and Jamal Aytes played sparingly.
Aytes, a freshman power forward who appeared ready to contribute, abruptly announced this week he is transferring. He played a total of 37 minutes in four games. Aytes is expected to land at BYU, which ranks third in the nation in scoring offense (90.8).
“I was very surprised,” Olekaibe said. “He was a great player with a lot of upside. Any team could use him. Everybody liked him, and we’re going to miss him a lot.”
Rice was not caught by surprise.
“I understand the decision,” he said. “I had communication with Jamal the last several weeks, and he was concerned about his playing time and more concerned about his playing time in the future. I think it was more of a numbers game. It was impossible to play six post players.”
Despite the Rebels’ loss of depth, Rice vowed he’s sticking to his promise to press, and he expects to eventually cultivate a running team led by freshman point guard Kendall Smith.
“I think Bryce’s hamstring was a big issue, and trying to figure out the point guard position was a big issue, as well,” Rice said. “The key is the point guard. Kendall Smith is our starting point guard. I do expect that we’ll play at a faster pace.
“I never once said we’re a young team. We’ve got experienced guys, but we’re just not experienced playing together. This is a group that needs more games.”
With five more games before Christmas, and none against ranked teams, UNLV has an opportunity to develop Rice’s vision.
“We’ve got a lot of bodies on the bench, and we’ve got to use them all. That was our mindset coming in, and I think we’ve got to get back to that,” Olekaibe said. “We’ve just got to start a win streak.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.