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Rice eyes bounce-back season for Rebels

When a new season arrives, so does the time to turn the page. Dave Rice has few fond memories of last season, and reflecting on it is not his favorite pastime.

The UNLV basketball coach vowed to learn from mistakes, made major changes and is ready to move on to the next chapter.

In a season of discontent with a chaotic conclusion, the Rebels finished 20-13 and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in Rice’s three years.

“There was no doubt I was not even close to satisfied,” he said. “I don’t want to talk too much about last year, but we weren’t consistent enough. It was unacceptable how inconsistent we were, and it’s my responsibility as a coach to make sure those things won’t happen.”

Looking forward to a bounce-back season, Rice will roll out a new-look team for UNLV’s first official practice today at the Mendenhall Center. It’s a team with two seniors, five true freshmen and plenty of potential and uncertainty.

“There’s a lot of question marks,” Rice said. “We certainly have a talented group. There’s going to be a learning curve for them, but you won’t hear me talking about being a young team. I always think we’re going to be good. I think we all recognize we need to win games.”

The Rebels’ top five scorers from 2013-14 departed, leaving senior swingman Jelan Kendrick (6.3 points per game) and sophomore forward Chris Wood (4.5) as the leading returnees. Kendrick and Wood combined to make only 10 starts in their first year in the program.

The strength of last season’s team was the front line, but juniors Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith, two of the nation’s top rebounders, left early for the NBA. Neither player was drafted. Birch is in camp with the Miami Heat, and Smith is with the Los Angeles Lakers.

The strength of this team will be the new backcourt. Cody Doolin, a graduate transfer from the University of San Francisco, is expected to provide senior leadership as the starting point guard. Rashad Vaughn, a McDonald’s All-American from Findlay Prep, appears poised to put up big numbers as the starting shooting guard.

“I think Rashad is going to have a big year because he’s a very good player and he’s got a point guard who understands how to get him the ball,” Rice said.

Kendall Smith, who started 13 games as a freshman, will be given a shot to win the backup role to Doolin.

“We have a lot of confidence in Kendall’s development,” Rice said.

Junior point guard Daquan Cook will redshirt because of a knee injury, and senior point guard Jerome Seagears, a Rutgers transfer, is likely to use a redshirt season, as well.

“That’s the direction we’re leaning,” Rice said, “and Jerome is happy about that.”

Junior forward Ben Carter, a Bishop Gorman High product and Oregon transfer, will run the Rebels’ redshirt total to three, so 10 of the 13 scholarship players will be available to play. Dantley Walker, a former Lincoln County High shooting star who redshirted as a freshman, returns as a reserve.

Rice’s recruiting class was ranked among the nation’s top five. Vaughn leads a group that includes 6-foot-10-inch center Goodluck Okonoboh, 6-8 forward Dwayne Morgan and 6-6 guards Jordan Cornish and Patrick McCaw.

Okonoboh, a skilled shot blocker and rebounder, Wood and Morgan will form UNLV’s front line. Kendrick, Cornish and McCaw also can play in the post, giving Rice a roster with versatility.

The three guards who led last season’s team are gone. Bryce Dejean-Jones, the top scorer at 13.6 points per game, transferred to Iowa State, Kevin Olekaibe graduated and Deville Smith transferred to Tennessee-Martin.

Smith will play for former Rebels assistant Heath Schroyer. Rice replaced Schroyer by hiring Ryan Miller and he also added veteran coach Max Good to the staff.

The Rebels can practice 30 times in the next 42 days before their Nov. 14 season opener against Morehead State at the Thomas &Mack Center.

Rice’s changes in personnel are obvious to see. He hopes his other adjustments lead to a more cohesive team and a lot less dysfunction.

“I enjoy going to workouts,” Rice said. “It’s a group that has been coachable and is excited about being together. These guys genuinely like each other.

“Not to be philosophical, but in life we can control two things, and we can control our effort and our attitude. We will play hard and we will play together. That was a theme in the offseason for us.”

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

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