SAN JOSE, Calif. — Most of the blame is dumped on the coach when a game or a season ends in depression. Dave Rice deserves some criticism at the conclusion of his second season.
Maybe expectations were too high and the hype heaped on UNLV in November was too much. Rice is a young basketball coach, just getting started, and he had to work with six newcomers and a point guard making a position switch. But nobody wants to hear excuses in March.
This was not Rice’s plan, yet it’s his responsibility as a leader to add a positive spin amid a storm of negativity.
“We are by no means satisfied ending a season like this,” he said Thursday night after the Rebels were eliminated by California 64-61 in an NCAA Tournament opener. “It was a tough one. We’re going to have to live with this for a while.
“It’s also going to serve as motivation for us moving forward. But the future is extremely bright. We won 51 games in the last two years, recruiting has gone well, and we’re excited about the future of our program. We will be back.”
The comeback will be made with a different group of players, and maybe Rice will make philosophical changes. What is obvious is that some change is needed, at least on a strategic level.
For five years, including the last three under former coach Lon Kruger, UNLV’s seasons have followed a similar theme. The Rebels pile up nonconference wins, fade in the Mountain West season, fail to win the conference tournament and implode in the NCAA Tournament.
UNLV (25-10) was knocked out of NCAA play in its opening game for the fourth consecutive year, upset each time as the better seed. As a No. 5 seed, the Rebels were dominated in the second half by the 12th-seeded Golden Bears, who were not the more talented team.
Losing with more talent can be viewed as an indictment of the coaching staff.
The running game Rice trumpeted when he was hired has not materialized. UNLV’s offense goes stagnant in the half court, as it did Thursday when Cal’s zone dictated the game, and Rice has not maximized the depth on his roster by implementing a full-court pressure defense to speed up the tempo. The team defense has deteriorated the past two years, and the Bears exposed it by staging an uncontested dunking exhibition.
The Rebels went 11½ minutes in the second half without making a field goal against Cal. During the 0-for-16 shooting slump, freshman forward Anthony Bennett was double-teamed and almost invisible.
One year removed from Findlay Prep and projected to be a top-five NBA Draft pick in June, Bennett will leave UNLV without a conference championship or an NCAA Tournament win.
“I still have to finish out school and see how everything plays out,” Bennett said Thursday when asked about his immediate future, which obviously awaits in the NBA.
Junior forward Mike Moser, who could have left school last year to be a likely second-round pick, is considering leaving, too. But after suffering a dislocated right elbow in a game at Cal in December, Moser’s season turned into a nightmare, and he’s an underdog to get drafted.
“I don’t know. I’m kind of getting away from everything and thinking it over,” Moser said.
Anthony Marshall, a four-year starter and first-year point guard, and Justin Hawkins depart as seniors after helping the Rebels to four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. Marshall, from Mojave High School, finished 20th in UNLV career scoring with 1,280 points.
Senior forward Quintrell Thomas also is gone, with Bennett and Moser almost certain to follow. Rumors persist that freshman guard Katin Reinhardt, Rice’s first high-profile high school recruit, is unhappy and contemplating transferring. Reserve forward Carlos Lopez-Sosa has one year of eligibility remaining, but he graduates this summer and might explore other options.
If Reinhardt and sophomore guard Bryce Dejean-Jones return, the Rebels should be in position to challenge New Mexico atop the Mountain West.
Sophomore center Khem Birch also appears to have an NBA future, but he would benefit from another year in college. Savon Goodman, a 6-foot-6-inch forward, showed promise as a freshman.
Roscoe Smith, a 6-8 forward, will fill a prominent role as a junior after transferring from Connecticut. Demetris Morant, an explosive 6-9 forward from Bishop Gorman High, will be ready to contribute after redshirting.
Rice has elevated UNLV’s recruiting significantly. He has three point guards committed, and 6-10 forward Chris Wood from Findlay Prep appears primed to be an impact player.
Seven games into his first season, Rice guided the Rebels to a stunning upset of No. 1 North Carolina, but that act has been tough to follow.
“I’m extremely proud of our seniors and their contributions,” Rice said. “I’m just disappointed for (Bennett) because he had such a fantastic freshman season.
“We will use the experience of this season to continue to build our program. We have a long way to go, but we’re very optimistic and confident about the future.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.