Amid the chaos, Dave Rice remained calm. And that would surprise absolutely no one who knows or has observed the UNLV basketball coach the past two years.
Rice’s even-keeled emotions could be considered one of his strengths. He does not get swept up in the highs and lows of daily life, whether coaching a game or running a program, and that was especially important during a trying, turbulent and sometimes exciting offseason.
“Every day, every situation, I try to learn from it, positive or negative,” Rice said. “You dwell on it for a short period of time, learn from it and you move on. That’s what we need to do.”
The Rebels open practice today at the Mendenhall Center. It’s a time to look ahead to the regular-season opener against Portland State on Nov. 8 at the Thomas &Mack Center and an occasion for reflection.
Much has happened since Rice’s second season ended with a one-and-done NCAA Tournament loss to California in March, and many of the UNLV players who walked off the court in San Jose, Calif., walked away without looking back.
Mike Moser, the team leader a year ago at this time, surprisingly announced his plans to graduate and transfer to Oregon for his senior season. Katin Reinhardt, a freshman starter who was given the keys to the car by Rice, made a public vow to return and then took off, transferring to 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.
Rumors of Savon Goodman running into trouble with the law were shot down in May when he met with UNLV officials and denied any wrongdoing. In August, Goodman was fingerprinted, photographed and arraigned on charges of conspiracy to commit burglary (a misdemeanor), felony burglary and felony grand larceny. Rice announced Goodman, a backup freshman forward and potential starter as a sophomore, is suspended for this season.
Aside from two high-profile player defections and an arrest, assistant coach Justin Hutson bolted from Rice’s staff and headed back to Mountain West rival San Diego State.
“I want players and coaches in our program who want to be here. There is attrition and guys transfer. It’s just the nature of college athletics these days,” Rice said. “We’re excited about moving forward. I appreciate the contributions of the players and coaches who helped us win 51 games the past two years. Am I satisfied with everything? Of course not. But there’s more credibility with having some success.”
There was some positive news to spin, highlighted by Bennett’s draft status. Rice landed one of the summer’s hottest prospects, Jamal Aytes, a 6-foot-6-inch power forward from San Juan Capistrano, Calif. Aytes is expected to be a contributor this season, especially in Goodman’s absence.
Kevin Olekaibe, a former Cimarron-Memorial High School star and a three-year starter at shooting guard for Fresno State, transferred to UNLV to be closer to his ailing father. Olekaibe, added as a non-scholarship player, is waiting for the NCAA to rule on his eligibility via a waiver.
Rice replaced Hutson with Findlay Prep coach Todd Simon. Rice and assistants Stacey Augmon and Heath Schroyer are recruiting at the Rebels’ highest level in more than two decades.
UNLV has attracted two of the top players in the class of 2014. Dwayne Morgan, a 6-7 forward from Baltimore, committed in March. Goodluck Okonoboh, a 6-9 forward from Wilbraham, Mass., last week picked the Rebels over Indiana, Ohio State, Duke and Florida.
Rice is collecting the type of talent UNLV has not seen since Jerry Tarkanian was coach. Rice played for Tarkanian and watched his long-awaited enshrinement into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in early September.
Tarkanian, who guided the Rebels to the NCAA championship in 1990, built a program that would reload instead of rebuild. The product Rice will put on the floor from November through March is somewhat of a mystery, but he definitely can sell fans on hope for the future.
“I do not want our players to feel like we are rebuilding,” Rice said. “I want our players to feel like we can compete, certainly in our league and on a national level. To say you’re rebuilding is an inherent excuse.”
A pair of juniors, 6-9 center Khem Birch and 6-5 shooting guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, will lead UNLV and should be among the elite players in the league. The other spots in the rotation are open for competition, and there will be plenty of it as Rice welcomes an influx of talent.
Off a 25-10 season, and still without a Mountain West championship or NCAA Tournament win, Rice has a roster that puts the Rebels in position to contend with New Mexico, Boise State and San Diego State for the conference title.
Rice admits he learned a lot from the highs and lows of the past year. He vows the Rebels will run at a faster pace, defend better and have improved chemistry.
“We feel like we have the personnel in place that we’ll be able to play full-court defense and push the ball on the offensive end. We’ll hold players to a very high standard in terms of how they have to play on the court,” he said. “I am really excited about this team.”
■ NOTES — Today’s practice is open to the public at 4:30 p.m. The Scarlet/Gray Showcase, a free fan event, is Oct. 17 at the Thomas &Mack. … Olekaibe is practicing with the Rebels. Chris Wood, a 6-10 freshman from Findlay Prep, is not cleared to practice yet after breaking a finger on his right hand.
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.