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Rice’s focus: Taking care of present more important than planning future

There was a high school basketball showcase in Springfield, Mass., televised by ESPNU on Monday, where national powers such as Bishop Gorman and Findlay Prep and DeMatha (Md.) and Mater Dei (Calif.) participated, where star players such as Shabazz Muhammad and Winston Shepard and Katin Reinhardt competed, where college coaches such as Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari watched.

Dave Rice had planned on sending an assistant coach or two, planned on UNLV being represented.

His team opened Mountain West Conference play by losing at San Diego State on Saturday.

Plans change.

“I decided it was very important for our entire staff to be at practice (Monday),” Rice said. “I talk to our team all the time about needing everyone involved in our program to be successful, from our starters to our scout team players to our staff. This was one of those days.

“We will always have the philosophy that there is nothing more important than our current players and the ones who have signed with and committed to us. I also believe the families of those players we are currently recruiting understand that and respect it.”

It is this sort of coach-in-the-moment reasoning that should benefit the No. 14 Rebels, who return to league play tonight by hosting Texas Christian at the Thomas & Mack Center. Rice should have as good a feel as any at how not to allow one loss to become two or two to become three and so on.

Impressive fact: When he was an assistant at Brigham Young, Rice helped lead a team that lost consecutive games just twice in six years, including just once during Mountain West play. Adversity on the court was always short-lived in Provo, Utah.

He’s big on the theory that managing failure is easier than managing success, that when a team loses a game as the Rebels did in San Diego, players are more apt to come together and commit to making sure it doesn’t become a trend than not working to improve.

That when a team’s winning streak reaches five, six, eight, 10 games, focus tends to shift more to individual goals while players stop thinking about making the next pass and instead begin looking at numbers in a box score.

“Obviously, managing success is a better alternative than failure,” Rice said. “But sometimes, when you win a lot, guys forget the things that made them so good.”

More than forgetting Saturday, the Rebels simply didn’t play or shoot well. They also met a San Diego State team that has made winning close games a common theme this season, having won five of six during a stretch against Southern California, Long Beach State, Arizona, UC Santa Barbara, Creighton and California, all of which were one-possession games in the final minute of regulation.

The Rebels haven’t played as many close games, mostly a testament to how good they have been under Rice. But there is something to improving when the learning curve includes those days when one play might be the difference between winning and losing.

Saturday was such a time.

Take, for example, Rebels sophomore Mike Moser. He played in just 15 games as a freshman at UCLA, averaging only 4.7 minutes. He then sat out a transfer season at UNLV. Before Saturday, he never had been such an important player on his team at the college level in a road environment, certainly not to the raucous level that defined Viejas Arena.

Moser finished with nine points and 12 rebounds but shot 3 of 11 and never found any offensive rhythm. It goes to say that while Moser won’t remember his effort fondly, he will be better for the experience.

Rice is hoping as much for all the Rebels.

“I do think it’s good to have some close games for the experience of it, just like it’s good to play ranked teams for having that experience,” he said. “If you take away those games played at the Orleans Arena, seven of our 19 have been true road games so far. To win a conference championship, you have to play well and find ways to win on the road.

“San Diego State was a great opportunity for that, and we didn’t quite get it done. But after each loss this season, we have come back and had a great practice and then played well our next game and won. That’s the sign of a very good team.

“We had a great practice (Monday).”

On the same day, across the country, star prep players showed off their skills to a nationally televised audience and some of college basketball’s most famous coaches from some of its most storied programs.

Rice made a different decision.

To have his staff remain home.

To improve as one.

The Rebels should be better for it tonight.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 3 to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday on “Monsters of the Midday,” Fox Sports Radio 920 AM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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