Rebels need fist, if not fury, from Rice next season


He never misspells a word when sending a text. Ever. He's the anti-iPhone.

Dave Rice is prepared enough, all right. Conscientious. Determined.

He also needs to make a fist today, rub a little iron on it and use it when approaching his basketball team.

Beginning, well, now.

You are judged in his business by how you finish, and UNLV hardly left a lasting impression in its NCAA Tournament loss to Colorado on Thursday. The Rebels lacked a sense of urgency from the opening tip, and that's on their coach as much as anyone else.

But when the big picture comes into focus and a final resume reads 26 wins and the program's highest NCAA seed (6) in 20 years and being ranked most of the season, far more foundation was set during Rice's first year leading his alma mater than any major cracks created.

A look back, and ahead ...

Expectations: You have to know beating then-No. 1 North Carolina in November was the best and worst thing that could have happened, that while it gained the Rebels the sort of national recognition few teams receive and even led to UNLV landing its future center in transfer Khem Birch, it offered a false sense of the team's true ability.

UNLV was good.

It was never North Carolina good.

UNLV players didn't handle expectations well. None embraced the role of go-to player, a must-have ingredient for any team as large leads begin to evaporate on the road, which they did often in the last month. Coaches tried to develop one, but it never took. Seniors were resistant to some of Rice's ideas. He desperately needs such a player next season, a guy everyone knows will and wants to take the most critical of shots.

It's too easy to say Rice and his staff didn't adjust well on the road, because if that's case, what were they at home, when they routinely blew people off the floor in the final 20 minutes, John Wooden and Co.? Of course not. UNLV's problems on the road stretched far beyond any halftime pep talk or change of Xs and Os. The Rebels weren't built to combat adversity. They lacked the one thing you must own to find success away from home. They weren't the least bit mentally tough.

Offense: Rice never installed close to 50 percent of the attack he directed at Brigham Young, lacking the type of point guard and center needed to run it the way he desires.

Oscar Bellfield had a terrific college career, but he was recruited as a point guard to a different system by a different coach. Daquan Cook and Katin Reinhardt are incoming guards more suited for Rice's full-throttle system. Each would have had every chance to start this year. One would have.

Birch is a 5-man who can run, and if there is one thing Rice must immediately abandon, it's a center-by-committee approach. Been there, seen it for years now, doesn't work. Rice needs to commit to Birch and groom any returning bigs as true backups.

Rice played Bellfield and Anthony Marshall too many minutes, and it showed down the stretch of a season that once offered a 21-3 record. Part of that was transfer guard Reggie Smith not being eligible until midyear, and the other part was Smith's inability to catch on and perform quickly.

Inconsistent decision-making was an issue all season from UNLV's point guards, and Marshall, tremendously athletic, must do a better job finishing at the rim with contact. His is an invaluable skill to get in the lane off the dribble, but it's negated when he doesn't finish plays.

Justin Hawkins is as good a kid as UNLV's program has known for years and one who embraces a defensive mindset, but his is not an offensive game and he was allowed to shoot too much. Those shots must go to others next season.

The bottom line showed that UNLV was a jump-shooting team that most nights couldn't shoot.

UNLV's half-court offense was forgettable, hampered by the inability to throw the ball inside and expect anything good to happen. The Rebels need better pace, tempo, conversion, all things that should come with an influx of new players better suited to Rice's vision.

Defense: While it's nice in theory to have wanted the Rebels to press all season as they did in rallying against Colorado, it wasn't feasible. Of the scholarship players available, Karam Mashour didn't play for lack of ability, and Chace Stanback and Kendall Wallace fought knee ailments all year. Pressing like most wanted them to would have more often than not had the Rebels gassed and beaten during the final 10 minutes of games.

Rice inherited good players but ones schooled and comfortable in Lon Kruger's half-court trapping mentality. You have to completely buy in and commit yourself to press in a way we saw UNLV do for a small window Thursday, and at the end of the day, those seniors didn't have the desire to do so. Nor did the team have enough quality depth or overall health.

Mike Moser had a fine season statistically, but he's a stretch 4-man who can't guard physical opponents at his spot (see Gordon, Drew). Moser needs to return for his junior season tougher and more intent on being a physical presence as his all-around game continues to develop.

Coaching: Rice needed more than anything else to win games and reach the NCAA Tournament his first season, but now that his roster will resemble a majority of players he recruited, it's on him to do a better job managing those expectations and running things his way, and demanding players either fall in line or look to play elsewhere.

Changes are coming. Some of the Kruger holdover players probably will soon depart. Players such as Birch and transfer Bryce Jones and Cook and Reinhardt will make immediate impacts. Demetris Morant is a Bishop Gorman signee who can also run as well as any big in the program today. Marshall and Hawkins and Carlos Lopez and the like must be willing to accept different and in spots decreased roles.

Rice hired associate head coach Justin Hutson to have a major say in on-court happenings, and he needs to make sure Hutson is more involved in every phase. Hutson should be an invaluable source for UNLV, and his coaching skills need to be allowed more room to grow.

Rice also needs to get a handle on his team's social media lovefest and control when and how often players take to the Twitter world, because the perception at times this season was that tweeting was as or more important to some as winning. Perception is everything.

The day after Kruger's departure for Oklahoma, I wrote UNLV needed to hire Rice as coach and let him build a program that would consistently win at high levels. I believe that will happen more today than ever.

He learned a lot this first season, a lot about managing kids and sitting in the main chair and what he needs to do better. He energized a fan base craving for deep March runs. He awoke a city.

More than anything else, though, he needs to make a fist, rub some iron on it and use it. Dave Rice doesn't need to rant and rave and throw chairs to make a point. That would be fake.

But he needs to make this his program a lot more than it was this year. Players need to fall in line or move on.

It needs to begin happening, well, now.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from noon to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday on "Gridlock," ESPN Radio 1100 AM and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

 

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