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Young Rebels hoping to discover offensive identity against Albany

Four games into his fourth season, coach Dave Rice’s vision for an up-tempo UNLV basketball team is out of focus. It’s not blurry because the offense is moving at incredible speed, either.

The Rebels are not running, so their nickname has become false advertising.

Of the nation’s 351 Division I teams, UNLV ranks 312th in scoring offense at 59.0 points per game. Obviously, that’s not a statistic Rice will be pitching to attract recruits.

“That’s a credit to our defense that we’ve been able to win three of the four games, never scoring more than 60 points,” he said. “I think you will see our offense improve moving forward. We still want to theoretically be a fast-break team.”

It’s too early in the season to race to conclusions, and a team with five freshmen playing major minutes simply might be learning to walk before it can run. Still, the Rebels’ lack of offense is Rice’s primary concern, and he spent hours of practice time on the issue this week.

UNLV (3-1) will be searching for an offensive outburst when it plays host to Albany (2-2) at 3:30 p.m. today at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Great Danes rank No. 182 in the nation at 68.3 points per game.

Albany, led by junior shooting guard Peter Hooley, returned two starters from a team that won the America East Conference and reached the NCAA Tournament last season.

With five new starters, the Rebels figured to get off to a slow start in November, and they have trailed at halftime in all four games while fighting back to grind out three narrow victories. Positives always can be found in finding ways to win, even against inferior opponents.

But the most alarming signs surfaced last week in New York, where the Rebels were blown away at their own game and run off the floor in an 89-60 loss to Stanford. Rice attributed the debacle partly to stage fright, saying his players exhibited a “deer in the headlights” look.

“We’re probably still searching for an identity,” UNLV senior point guard Cody Doolin said.

As of now, the team’s identity is defense. The Rebels rank 15th in the nation in field-goal percentage defense (.339) and fourth in blocked shots per game (8.5). Rice has added a wrinkle by using 1-2-2 and 1-3-1 zone defenses, a strategy that seems to be slowing the pace of play.

As an assistant at Brigham Young, Rice was offensive coordinator for one of the nation’s highest-scoring teams. Ironically, the Cougars rank No. 1 in scoring at 96.7 points per game this season. After promising a run-and-gun attack and full-court pressure defense at UNLV, Rice appears to be altering his approach, at least temporarily.

“We still want to be primarily a man-to-man defensive team,” Rice said. “We still want to be opportunistic in terms of running, but it’s got to start on the defensive end.”

At BYU, Rice had an explosive combo guard to work with in Jimmer Fredette. His main weapon now is freshman guard Rashad Vaughn, who scored 44 points in the first two games before shooting 4-for-19 and totaling 14 points against Stanford and Temple.

“He was actually sick last weekend,” Rice said. “Rashad would never use that as an excuse. He’s finding out — and it’s a difficult transition — that he’s at the top of every scouting report, and teams are being physical with him.”

The Rebels are far from red-hot shooting the ball, connecting on 38.7 percent from the field, including 20 for 62 (32.3 percent) from 3-point range. But their offensive inefficiency in half-court sets also can be blamed on stagnant ball movement in addition to an absence of hard screening and players not properly timing their cuts off the screens.

Rice and his staff worked all week on those details within the offense.

“We have to do a better job of screening than we did in the first three games,” Rice said. “It’s about trying to be patient but playing with more pace. We’ll get better because we’ve got good shooters.”

While there’s no doubt the Rebels are taking it slow instead of putting on an offensive show, Doolin said the defensive end of the floor is where UNLV has exceeded expectations.

“With any winning team, we have to be able to get stops,” Doolin said. “We all would like to score more points, and that’s something we’ve been working on a lot.

“Our first option is to get the ball up the court and get a layup or get a 3-pointer out of transition. Every game we are improving. I think we have guys who can shoot the ball, so our offense will pick up.”

■ NOTES — Rice said sophomore Kendall Smith, who has dropped to No. 3 on the depth chart at point guard behind Doolin and freshman Patrick McCaw, is questionable to play with an ankle injury. … The game time was moved to earlier in the day because of the 7:30 p.m. kickoff for the UNR-UNLV football game.

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

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