The cooling-off period from the 2011-12 UNLV basketball season has come to a close.
Rather than simply reflecting on what was a mostly positive first season under Dave Rice that ended with a bit of an unexpected thud, let’s take a little time to look forward.
Here are seven questions that UNLV faces this offseason as the program transitions into its second go-around in the Rice Era.
Will UNLV have a ‘tough guy’?
Many bemoaned what they perceived to be the team’s lack of ‘toughness’ down the stretch run of the season, which saw the Rebels drop six of their last 11 games. And, yes, something was clearly missing down the stretch.
It’s hard to pin-point exactly what saying a team lacking toughness means. Does UNLV have some tough players? Absolutely. But what the team seemed to be missing at times when it hit the skids was an ‘edge.’
One guy who will help provide some of that will be USC transfer Bryce Jones, who will play a monster role right from go in the 2012-13 season not only in terms of his production, but also with what he brings to the court mentally and emotionally.
All year on the practice floor, Jones brought plenty of bite, both verbally and with his talent, as the ringleader on UNLV’s scout team. He’s an in-your-face type who will give UNLV some of that ‘edge’ it may have lacked at times this year when things got rough.
Will he rub some the wrong way at times? Maybe. But you can be that guy when you produce, which he likely will. That was the case with former Rebel standout Tre’Von Willis when he had his breakout campaign as a junior in 2009-10. At 6-foot-5, Jones has a smooth mid-range game and can score in just about any way imaginable. He also has elite-level athleticism, which will produce highlights that could quickly make him a fan favorite.
Ideally, Dave Rice would probably like to have a handful of the in-your-face types. But next season, having at least one will do.
How will UNLV solve its rebounding issues?
In UNLV’s final 11 games of the season, it was out-rebounded five times. Coincidence or not, those were the five games the Rebels lost.
The team’s biggest weakness came on the defensive glass, where, moving forward, the Rebels need another consistent force up front to join Mike Moser, who is highly likely to return for his junior season after averaging a double-double (14.0 ppg, 10.5 rpg) as a redshirt sophomore.
Moser ranked 10th in the nation this season in rebounds per game, while he was fifth in defensive boards per contest.
On the recruiting trail over the next few weeks, Rice and his staff are out to lock up another big man who can come in and make an impact on the glass, with aggressive and strong Findlay Prep big man Anthony Bennett as their top target. Should he fall through, there are a couple of junior college options in the mix, too.
Also, when he becomes eligible following the fall semester, Pitt transfer and former McDonald’s All-American Khem Birch will add quite a presence on the boards.
As for the other returning big men, there is plenty to prove. Junior Quintrell Thomas might be UNLV’s most aggressive center on the glass, but can he become consistent enough with his hands on the offensive end that he can play extended minutes? Can Carlos Lopez bring his presence as a rebounder and defender up to par with his vast offensive repertoire in his fourth year in the program?
Another wild card is bouncy 6-foot-8 incoming freshman Demetris Morant from Bishop Gorman, who is athletic enough to rebound at the Division-I level, but might need to get a bit bigger before doing so and be brought along slowly.
What lessons did Dave Rice learn in Year One that will translate to Year Two?
A 26-9 overall record, highlighted by an undefeated home record and a victory over a No.1-ranked team, is quite a way to start a head coaching career.
But there are always lessons to be learned.
One area in which Rice might change up as a sophomore coach could be to use his bench more early in the season, as the heavy minutes played by several key pieces at the top of his rotation, combined with the heavy conditioning regimen in the preseason, might have led to some of those same guys struggling downy he stretch.
It will also be interesting to see how different UNLV might look on defense, as many of the team’s breakdowns late in the season stemmed from issues on that end of the floor. That will be especially intriguing if associate head coach Justin Hutson, who ran the defense in the 2010-11 campaign at San Diego State during the Aztecs’ 34-win season, gets more control of things on that end of the floor.
What will UNLV do at the point guard spot with Oscar Bellfield graduating?
Was Oscar Bellfield the ideal point guard to lead Dave Rice’s offense? He wasn’t the perfect fit, but more than met the requirements as an outside shooter and facilitator.
As a four-year starter, Bellfield didn’t have any Mountain West regular season or conference titles or NCAA tournament wins on his final collegiate résumé, but that didn’t at all diminish what he accomplished, finishing 21st on the program’s all-time scoring list (1,226 points) and fifth all-time in assists (582; Mountain West Conference record).
Who fills those shoes?
Anthony Marshall will be back as a senior, but will likely continue to play the combo guard role. Justin Hawkins could start in the backcourt early in the season, too, but his role in terms of what’s expected of him might not change much — a do-it-all sparkplug who can give 25-30 minutes off of the bench every night.
One returner who will get a crack at some added minutes will be sophomore Marquette transfer Reggie Smith, who has two years of eligibility remaining. It proved to be an incredibly tough task to come into the rotation and pick up Rice’s system in the middle of the season after becoming eligible at the semester break, and Smith’s opportunities dwindled down the stretch. But now having seen how Rice’s offense works firsthand, a full offseason on campus could make Smith a serious sleeper to play a big role on next year’s squad.
Freshman Daquan Cook will have a chance to earn minutes early, too, but fellow newcomer Katin Reinhardt from Mater Dei (Calif.) High will bring the most fanfare with him out of all the contenders for that starting gig.
He can get teammates involved and will likely be the best shooter UNLV has from the day he arrives on campus. The added dimension he brings is the ability to beat any defender off of the dribble and use his size and skill to score in a variety of ways around the rim. But is he ready mentally to handle the job? Can he handle the bumps and bruises that come with being a freshman at a high-major Division-I program? That’s what remains to be seen, because his elite-level total physical package is easy to see.
What remaining roster additions can be expected?
Currently, one scholarship remains unclaimed.
The aforementioned Bennett is the top priority of the staff right now, as he’s not only a legitimate Top-10 talent nationally in the class of 2012, but he also fits the biggest need.
At 6-foot-8 and 235 pounds, Bennett would give UNLV another monster threat on the glass, but also fills the void in terms of a mid-post and low-post scorer from Day One. He’ll likely be deciding in the next couple of months from the five schools remaining on his list: UNLV, Washington, Oregon, Florida and Kentucky. He’s hoping to take a handful of visits after finishing the high school all-star game circuit.
UNLV is also still recruiting three other senior prep prospects: Bishop Gorman star Shabazz Muhammad, much-improved Findlay big man Matt Willms and former UTEP commit Anthony January — a raw-yet-athletic 6-foot-8 wing from Woodland Hills (Calif.) Taft High.
Rice and assistant coach Heath Schroyer are also in Hutchinson, Kan., this week for the NJCAA national tournament, checking out the junior college ranks in case some things fall through with the rest of their targets.
What about any impending defections?
Will a second scholarship open up? It’s always a possibility.
The one guy most fans have looked at as being disgruntled at the end of the bench is 6-foot-6 sophomore wing Karam Mashour, who has been a hard worker on the practice floor, but the logistics of UNLV’s rotation have kept him from getting much of a shot at real playing time.
By deciding not to check into a February game agaisnt Colorado State in the closing minutes, it offered some public insight into Mashour’s frustrations, but his standing in the rotation might not change much should he decide to return as a junior.
If he wanted to play his final two years of college ball elsewhere, he does still have his redshirt year to burn. Or playing overseas closer to home could be an option.
Either way, it will be interesting to see what he and his family decide on.
Earlier in the season, there was also some buzz that Mike Moser’s first season at UNLV would be his only one. He had a very strong sophomore season, averaging a double-double and coming up with some big performances on big stages. But he could develop himself into an NBA lottery pick with one more year of development, focusing on scoring with his back to the basket inside and on his defensive fundamentals.
Where does UNLV fit into the landscape of the Mountain West?
While UNLV figures to be a bigger, better and stronger team next season, the same goes for several teams in the Mountain West, which figures to be stacked.
The 2011-12 season was successful in several ways for the league, but didn’t quite end the way many had envisioned, as the MWC’s four NCAA tournament teams went a combined 1-4 in the tourney, with none advancing past the first weekend.
Heading into next season, it will be a great debate as to who is the king of the league at the start between UNLV and San Diego State.
What UNLV’s roster will look like is obviously not completely determined yet, but it’s already known just how good the Aztecs will be. Aside from returning four of five starters, the Aztecs get a trio of talented transfers eligible in Dwayne Polee (St. John’s), J.J. O’Brien (Utah) and James Johnson (Virginia, mid-year). The topper is 6-foot-7 defensive terror Winston Shepard coming in as a freshman from Findlay Prep. They’ll be deep and scary.
Beyond those top two teams, the rest of the league’s upper half will be strong.
New Mexico loses some significant size with Drew Gordon and A.J. Hardeman graduating, but they return just about everything on the perimeter and have some nice incoming talent. Colorado State also returns four starters and gets bolstered with two key transfers of its own in Daniel Bejarano (Arizona) and Colton Iverson (Minnesota). Wyoming and incoming Nevada-Reno will also bring back plenty from successful teams that earned postseason berths.
What does it mean? UNLV will have to be a better team next season to stay afloat and try and win a title in a better Mountain West Conference.