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Rice, Rebels still going through growing pains

At their best, Rashad Vaughn and Chris Wood can be a dynamic duo, pro prospects capable of making UNLV appear to be an elite team. But that’s also part of an illusion.

When the smoke clears, the close games are decided and the records counted, the Rebels can be found near the bottom of the mediocre Mountain West. It’s an eighth-place team with two prospects.

It’s not something coach Dave Rice sees as an indictment of his performance, however.

“I think we have done a good job of coaching this group,” Rice said. “I’m obviously disappointed we have come up short in a number of these games, but we’re in every game.”

UNLV (13-10, 4-6) is a 9-point favorite over Fresno State (11-12, 6-4) at 7 p.m. today at the Thomas &Mack Center, where the Rebels upset then-No. 3 Arizona on Dec. 23 and lost to UNR two weeks later.

How is it all possible? Rice is putting one of the youngest teams in college basketball on the floor, with five freshmen in his eight-man rotation, so inexperience is one explanation.

“We have a talented group,” Rice said. “Every freshman and every player needs to improve, and every coach needs to improve. But experience, strength and wisdom are things that come from being a little older. It’s hard to compare fifth-year seniors and freshmen.”

About 10 NBA scouts attended the UNLV-Colorado State game Saturday at Fort Collins, Colo., and none showed up to take notes on the Rams’ three fifth-year seniors. J.J. Avila, Daniel Bejarano and Stanton Kidd are quality college players for a 20-win team, but none will be lottery picks.

The scouts were there to see Wood, a 6-foot-11-inch sophomore forward, and Vaughn, a 6-6 freshman shooting guard. One scout said Wood, who had 16 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks, “definitely” would be a first-round pick this year because of his length. The same scout said Vaughn, who made six 3-pointers and scored 30 points, is a “possible” first-round pick in June.

The Rebels’ other four freshmen — Jordan Cornish, Patrick McCaw, Dwayne Morgan and Goodluck Okonoboh — are highly touted players who might develop into NBA prospects. Of that group, McCaw shows the most potential.

Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy, who hyped his players for the game by telling them UNLV is the most talented team in the league, called Rice a “great coach” after the Rams overcame an 18-point deficit to win 83-82. Eustachy complimented Rice’s work in handling so many high-profile players.

Rice termed it a “challenging” task while saying this was part of his rebuilding plan when he gutted last season’s roster in the spring.

“With a five-year contract extension, it was the one opportunity I had to build a program the way I wanted to build it with high school players and not have a starting lineup with five guys who are all transfers,” Rice said. “I made a decision this is what I wanted to do to build a foundation with freshmen and sprinkle in some transfers.

“I’m glad we did, even though it has been painful at times. I would say a majority of our freshmen have made tremendous improvement from the beginning of the season.”

Inexperienced players sometimes lose focus, too, another explanation for UNLV underachieving and losing to opponents with less talent.

“I think it goes back to young, high-profile players who tend to play up to the level of competition,” Rice said. “We need to have the same motivation for everyone in our league that we do when we play Arizona and Kansas.”

The Rebels have dropped six conference games by a total of 25 points, including a nine-point loss in overtime, and executing in pressure situations is another explanation for a talented, young team not winning to expectations.

Still, throwing five freshmen and a sophomore under the bus is not the entire answer.

UNLV has a young coaching staff as well, and in the case of the overtime loss at Boise State, Rice made a few costly strategical mistakes. It all adds up to a 4-6 league record.

“I always take responsibility when we lose,” Rice said. “If we split those six games, we’re a half-game out of first place. But that’s if, if, if, and we didn’t win those games, and I get that.

“I’m very optimistic about the season and very optimistic about our future. But I’m not thinking about March. All I’m thinking about is Fresno State.”

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

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