What’s Next?: Rice ‘100 percent confident’ he’ll fix program

Three years ago, when Dave Rice unexpectedly landed his dream job, he announced an exciting plan that made a lot of sense. But this was not in his plans.

Somewhere along the way, some details were overlooked and a wrong turn or two were taken. On Monday night, Rice was in a hotel in Wichita, Kan., preparing to scout a junior college tournament.

After a 20-13 season, and with the NCAA Tournament beginning today, it’s not the trip the UNLV basketball coach had planned.

“It was a very challenging year,” Rice said. “I’m very disappointed that we didn’t reach our goals. It has to start with me because I’m the boss. It starts by looking in the mirror.”

It was a season that in some ways mirrored the movie, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” although with less comedy and similar misadventures. There was no shower curtain ring salesman, and there was no blizzard in Chicago to divert a flight.

Still, there was a player who was suspended for bad behavior, another star who was punched in the head in a fight with a football player, and a few other starters who were benched for being late to the team bus.

So, as Rice spent the night in a hotel room in a remote town, he could relate to the words of Steve Martin’s character in the movie: “Are you saying I could be stuck in Wichita?”

The Rebels are in turmoil, but Rice is adamant that they are not stuck in a hopeless situation. He is admitting mistakes, plotting changes and aiming to stick to his original plan.

“We’re going to get this thing fixed and turned around,” he said. “I’m 100 percent confident of that.”

UNLV’s season hit a dead end Friday with a third loss to San Diego State, the final blow delivered in a Mountain West tournament semifinal. It was the Rebels’ eighth loss of the season at the Thomas &Mack Center, and it excluded them from the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009.

The beginning of a failed journey was Nov. 1, when Division II Dixie State dealt UNLV an exhibition defeat in a sign of things to come. The season concluded with a heated argument between junior guards Bryce Dejean-Jones and Jelan Kendrick in the locker room after the loss to the Aztecs.

“I was back in the bowels in the arena, and I heard some of the shouting and some of the shenanigans going on in the locker room,” said Doug Gottlieb, a CBS analyst who called several of the Rebels’ games. “I think Bryce was toxic. He was really hard to play with, but he needs a really strong personality as a coach, and Dave has to show that.”

It was announced Sunday that Dejean-Jones, the team’s leading scorer, will not return. He was suspended after a postgame blowup March 5 and sat out the regular season finale at UNR, a game which UNLV lost after blowing a 17-point second-half lead. Dejean-Jones is on schedule to graduate this summer and will try to play professionally or spend his final year of eligibility at another college.

“We mutually agreed that Bryce would not be on the team next year,” said Rice, adding that he met with Dejean-Jones and his parents and did not dismiss the player for disciplinary reasons.

Dejean-Jones transferred from Southern California, leaving the Trojans in January 2011 amid reports that he threw a punch that broke a teammate’s nose in a locker room feud. The dispute between Dejean-Jones and Kendrick, a junior college transfer with a checkered history, was rumored to involve the players throwing punches. Rice disputed that it was a physical altercation.

“It was frustrations that boiled over from losing the game,” Rice said. “It was a verbal exchange.”

UNLV athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy, who temporarily blocked a Review-Journal reporter from entering the locker room after the San Diego State game, has pledged her support for Rice.

The Rebels’ top six scorers, including Dejean-Jones and Kendrick, were transfers. That turned into a problem, Gottlieb asserted, because it contributed to faltering chemistry on a team with no strong leader or true point guard.

“Transfers can really help you. On the other hand, if you take someone else’s problem child or problem children, they can ruin your program,” Gottlieb said. “I don’t think Dave had a particularly smart team, and smart is not about GPA. There’s a reason you find ways to lose games instead of finding ways to win games.

“I like Dave a great deal, but you’ve got to get tougher as a coach. You can be tough as long as you’re fair. I think he has to be stronger and more demanding. He might also need some help and a change on the sideline. You need a hard-core X’s and O’s guy.”

That could be Max Good, the Rebels’ interim coach for 22 games during the 2000-01 season. Good, recently fired as the coach at Loyola Marymount, attended the Mountain West tournament. Rice is hoping to create a position for a special assistant to the head coach, and he might have another opening on his staff.

Heath Schroyer, Rice’s top assistant, is a leading candidate for the head coaching job at Tennessee-Martin.

Rice recognizes the need for changes within the program. His roster is about to get a makeover. It started with Dejean-Jones’ departure.

Kendrick, a former McDonald’s All-American who attended three colleges prior to UNLV, also is on schedule to graduate in the summer and might leave the team.

Junior forwards Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith, two of the Rebels’ most productive players, are debating their futures. Birch, a transfer from Pittsburgh, is a potential second-round pick in the NBA Draft. Smith, a transfer from Connecticut, is not an NBA prospect but might opt to attempt to play as a pro.

Smith suffered a concussion late in the season. It seemed to happen in the second half of a win at Air Force on March 1, when he chased a loose ball and took a hit to the head. But the collision was unclear, and athletic trainer Dave Tomchek said after the game that Smith was not hit in the head. The next day, Smith was ruled out with a concussion, and he missed two games.

Multiple sources stated that seven to 10 days prior to the game at Air Force, Smith was punched in the head at least once by a UNLV football player, though Smith did not instigate the altercation, which could have contributed to his concussion.

A rift between some Rebels basketball and football players was addressed and settled privately by Rice and football coach Bobby Hauck, sources said.

Rice said some player personnel questions could be answered when he holds a team meeting next week. He has one of the nation’s top recruiting classes coming in, highlighted by Findlay Prep guard Rashad Vaughn.

A year after losing stars Mike Moser and Katin Reinhardt, who transferred to Oregon and USC, respectively, and watching top assistant Justin Hutson return to rival San Diego State, Rice is headed into another soap opera summer following a season that did not go as planned.

“I’m going to fix it,” Rice said. “It starts in the recruiting process. We need to make sure that we recruit high-character players. Our recruiting has been very good. With any assessment of a season, I always start by evaluating myself and the things I’ve done well and things I didn’t do well. But I also have to hold others accountable.

“It’s very important that I establish a much stronger culture of discipline, and that has to be something we work on every single day. That’s my job to establish that. We’re going to put a team on the floor that people will be proud of and enjoy watching.”

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter @mattyoumans247.