In his third season as coach, Dave Rice has a unique UNLV basketball team. There is not another one in the nation like it, and that alone sets the scene for intrigue.
Rice refuses to call this a rebuilding project, but he has constructed his roster with a different blueprint. The Rebels’ top six players are transfers, players who migrated to Las Vegas from spots all over the map for various reasons.
“I think the thing in terms of transfers is they are guys who have played at this level, and we have good players,” Rice said. “Anytime you’ve got nine new faces, there’s always some unknowns. It provides uncertainty and concern.”
It also provides UNLV an opportunity to enter the season without the hype that surrounds a preseason Top 25 ranking and predictions of a deep run into the NCAA Tournament. That was the case a year ago.
But with the Rebels set to open against Portland State at 7:30 p.m. today at the Thomas &Mack Center, there’s no way to know what lies ahead on the long journey to March.
Rice is chasing his first Mountain West title and UNLV’s fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. He has a mostly new and talented group of players and a plan to implement full-court pressure defense and a more run-oriented offense.
Some things never change, however. He is expected to win, just as he won 51 games in his first two years.
“There’s always pressure and great expectations at UNLV,” Rice said. “This is a job with high expectations, and we accept those.”
His probable starting lineup today consists of five transfers — guards Deville Smith (Mississippi State), Kevin Olekaibe (Fresno State) and Jelan Kendrick (Mississippi), forward Roscoe Smith (Connecticut) and center Khem Birch (Pittsburgh). Deville Smith and Kendrick took detours through junior colleges.
Olekaibe, bothered Thursday by a sore groin but expected to start, was granted an eligibility waiver this week by the NCAA. He’s a homegrown player from Cimarron-Memorial High School.
The Rebels’ top returning scorer, junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, is being replaced in the lineup by Olekaibe. Dejean-Jones, a transfer from Southern California, is out with a strained right hamstring.
Dejean-Jones hopes to return for UNLV’s most important home nonconference games against Arizona State (Nov. 19) and Illinois (Nov. 26).
“I’m trying to support the guys. It kind of sucks sitting on the side, but it gives some other guys a chance to get some game-time experience,” said Dejean-Jones, who participated in shooting drills at Thursday’s practice. “I’m looking to be back pretty soon, but I’m trying to make sure I’m completely healthy before I come back.”
After a turbulent summer, six of UNLV’s top eight scorers from last season are gone, leaving Dejean-Jones, Birch and senior forward Carlos Lopez-Sosa as the leading men.
Mike Moser transferred to Oregon for his senior season, and Katin Reinhardt, the starting shooting guard as a freshman, left for Southern California.
The graduation of seniors Anthony Marshall, Justin Hawkins and Quintrell Thomas was followed by freshman forward Anthony Bennett going No. 1 in the NBA Draft to the Cleveland Cavaliers. And last month, sophomore forward Savon Goodman left the program amid legal issues.
There also was turnover on the coaching staff, with assistant Justin Hutson bolting back to Mountain West rival San Diego State and getting replaced by former Findlay Prep coach Todd Simon.
Suddenly, the team picture looks drastically different.
“A lot of lessons were learned, and it was still a very successful year winning 25 games and getting to the NCAA Tournament,” Rice said. “We’ve been able to cultivate cohesion and team chemistry. It’s going to take a little bit of time to play our best basketball.”
After two ugly exhibitions, including a 71-70 loss to Division II Dixie State, Rice is working to piece together a new puzzle that includes two seniors, Lopez-Sosa and Olekaibe.
“We lost to a D-II school, we move on and we learn,” Lopez-Sosa said. “We needed that to happen. Anyone can come in here and beat us. We have a target on our backs.
“We have the pieces. We had the pieces last year, and we had the pieces the year before that. I’m excited to see what’s going to happen and where we go from here.”
■ NOTES — Portland State returns two starters from an 8-20 team. The Vikings are predicted to finish near the bottom of the Big Sky Conference. ... Rice said Dantley Walker, a freshman guard from Lincoln County High, will redshirt this season. ... A live video stream of today’s game will be available for free at UNLVRebels.com.
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.