Another year, another extreme roster makeover. Chaotic offseasons at UNLV are feeding the monster of public perception and creating opinions that coach Dave Rice is running a dysfunctional basketball program.
The attrition rate is high, and the Rebels’ win total last season was their lowest since 2006.
Five players, including four starters, have departed early since March, when UNLV finished 20-13 and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in Rice’s three years.
There are several negatives, but this also could be perceived as a time when chaos is a positive sign. It’s a sign Rice is correcting mistakes and taking his team in a different direction.
“I felt like going into the offseason it was important for us to get our roster right so we won’t have this kind of attrition moving forward,” Rice said. “There’s a lot of speculation about a lot of things. The transfers and the revolving door, all those things you hear, what’s really important is getting the roster right.
“I do think you’ll see a lot more stability moving forward.”
The Rebels opened last season with a starting lineup consisting of forwards Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith and guards Jelan Kendrick, Kevin Olekaibe and Deville Smith.
“I don’t think you will see a situation where we’ll start five transfers ever again,” Rice said.
In late March, Rice rejected a lucrative offer from South Florida and received a two-year contract extension through the 2018-19 season. The extension gives him more credibility on the recruiting trail, and his recruiting philosophy is evolving.
Expect to see a slowdown in the revolving door of transfers. Rice signed five freshmen — Rashad Vaughn, Dwayne Morgan, Goodluck Okonoboh, Patrick McCaw and Jordan Cornish — to round out a UNLV recruiting class that is ranked No. 4 in the nation, according to Rivals.com.
“I want high school recruiting to be the foundation of our program,” he said. “It’s always going to be a priority to sign high school guys, as many as we can, and supplement our roster with transfers. We’ll be selective in terms of transfers.”
It has been a transient program in recent years. The Rebels’ top six scorers last season — Bryce Dejean-Jones (Southern California), Birch (Pittsburgh), Roscoe Smith (Connecticut), Olekaibe (Fresno State), Deville Smith (Mississippi State) and Kendrick (Mississippi) — all arrived via transfer. Olekaibe graduated, four others left early and only Kendrick, who is on his fourth college, remains on the roster.
Dejean-Jones, the team’s leading scorer, planned to enter the NBA Draft but had a subpar season. He battled attitude problems late in the season, graduated and transferred to Iowa State for his final year. Birch and Roscoe Smith declared for the draft with dreams of going in the second round.
“I thought there was a possibility we could lose all of those guys going into the season, so it didn’t come as a surprise to me,” Rice said. “I just knew they all had a strong desire to move on to the next level.”
Deville Smith, a model of inconsistency on and off the floor, essentially was encouraged to leave by a coaching staff wanting a new leader at point guard.
In the 14 months since the end of the 2012-13 season, 10 players with eligibility remaining have departed the UNLV program. That number includes Anthony Bennett, a freshman who left to become the No. 1 pick in last year’s NBA Draft. Mike Moser (Oregon) and Katin Reinhardt (USC) were high-profile transfers last offseason.
New Mexico, which won the past three Mountain West tournament championships, lost three transfers this offseason, and another player, Alex Kirk, bailed on his final season to declare for the draft. San Diego State has been the conference’s most stable elite program with only three players, including one NBA draft pick, exiting early in the past two offseasons.
“Transfers are going to continue to be a factor for every program across the country,” Rice said. “It has been challenging to manage the roster, without question.”
Rice’s plan to build with high school recruits starts with Vaughn, a McDonald’s All-American from Findlay Prep. The 6-6 shooting guard should become a team leader as a freshman.
“The great thing about Rashad is he’s a terrific team guy, and he’s had a big hand in helping us recruit,” Rice said. “The guys all talk about wanting to play with him.”
Cornish and McCaw are 6-6 shooting guards, with Cornish also built to play the 3-spot. Morgan is a 6-7 small forward who will play a lot at the 4-spot. Okonoboh is a 6-9 center, and his shot-blocking and rebounding skills will be valuable to a team thin on the front line without Birch.
“We’ve got some big guards,” Rice said. “There seems to be a trend to go small and play big guards at the 3 and 4, and that’s something you will see a lot next season. It was important for us to improve our perimeter shooting.”
UNLV returns only 21.4 percent of its scoring from last season. Kendrick, a versatile 6-6 senior, started eight games and averaged 6.3 points. Chris Wood, a 6-10 forward, started twice as a freshman and averaged 4.5 points.
Rice signed senior point guard transfers Cody Doolin (University of San Francisco) and Jerome Seagears (Rutgers) to run the team, with sophomore Kendall Smith also in the mix.
All eight of the Rebels’ newcomers will be on campus by June or July, giving the coaching staff extra time to mold another new-look roster.
“When you lose five starters, everything is very wide open,” Rice said. “I like the guys we signed. I don’t have any preconceived notions in terms of a starting lineup and who’s going to play.
“What matters is how we look in November. We certainly better be good early because we do play a tough schedule. There’s no doubt we’ll be young and inexperienced, but it’s a group that will play exciting basketball.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.