It’s conventional wisdom in college basketball that a coach really makes his mark in his third year with a program. You get two years to assemble your coaching staff, recruit your own players and install your system, and then it’s time to show results on the court.
In other words, if you’ve got what it takes to build and maintain an elite program, the signs are usually clear by the end of your third year on the job. The third year is go-time, and the list of guys who have made the leap from pretender to contender in Year Three reads like the lineup at God’s coaching clinic:
Jim Valvano won an NCAA championship in his third year at North Carolina State.
In Rick Pitino’s third year at Kentucky, the Wildcats went from not appearing in the tournament the year before to playing in the Elite 8.
Michigan State went from not qualifying for the tourney in Tom Izzo’s second year to playing in the Sweet 16 in his third season at the helm.
Roy Williams took Kansas to the title game in his third year in Lawrence.
Billy Donovon brought Florida to the Sweet 16 in his third year.
And, more recently, John Calipari won a national title in 2012 in his third year at Kentucky.
It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, and some situations have to be taken on a case-by-case basis—it took John Wooden 16 years to win his first national title; Jerry Tarkanian led the Rebels to the Final Four in his fourth season—but the third year has become a sort of midterm exam for college basketball coaches.
Which brings us to Dave Rice, who is in his third year as head coach of the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. In two largely successful seasons he’s led the Rebels to 51 victories, two trips to the NCAA tournament and some memorable moments along the way (UNLV’s win over No. 1 North Carolina at the Orleans Arena in 2011 was one for the ages). But the team has come up short in two crucial aspects: NCAA tournament success has eluded Rice (he’s 0-for-2 in the Big Dance), and he’s also been unable to get the Rebels to play his preferred up-tempo style consistently.
But now that Rice is working with a roster almost entirely of his own construction—only backup center Carlos Lopez-Sosa and likely redshirt Dantley Walker were recruited by previous coach Lon Kruger—Rice is dealing from a deck stacked with “his guys.”
“We feel like we have a group that can play up-tempo basketball,” Rice says. “We feel like we have a group that we can press on made baskets and dead balls, and push the tempo.”
It’s the deepest squad Rice has had at UNLV. Returning—and expected to lead the team—are center Khem Birch (the reigning Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year) and shooting guard Bryce Dejean-Jones (10.3 points per game last season). And they’re joined by a slew of long, athletic newcomers who should allow Rice to play as fast as he wants to play.
Swingman Jelan Kendrick and point guard Deville Smith, both junior college transfers, should bring length, speed and creativity to the starting lineup. And rangy forward Roscoe Smith, eligible after sitting out last year as a transfer from Connecticut (where he won a national title in 2011) is a two-way grinder who gives Rice ideal lineup flexibility.
Picture this sequence: The Rebels are playing a pressure half-court defense, and Roscoe Smith harasses a shooter into a missed jumper. Birch rebounds and throws a quick outlet to Deville Smith. Smith pushes the ball quickly toward half court, scans the floor and hits Kendrick in the open floor. Kendrick weaves through the lane, draws the defense, then kicks it out to Dejean-Jones, who is trailing and hits an open 3-pointer.
But the Rebels aren’t done. As the opposing team tries to inbound the ball, Birch face-guards the man taking it out. His angle cut off, the inbounder’s only option is to throw a pass to a teammate in the corner, where Roscoe Smith and Deville Smith quickly converge to trap the ball.
The opponent picks up his dribble, pivots and tries to heave a pass forward over his shoulder. Roscoe Smith uses his long arms to tip the pass, and it’s picked off near half court by Kendrick. He throws it forward to Dejean-Jones, who tosses up an alley-oop for Birch to finish.
The entire sequence takes less than 15 seconds.
That’s the ideal style Rice wants the Rebels to play. It’s an exciting, crowd-pleasing system, and one that can be very effective—Pitino employed a similar pressure defense to lead Louisville to the NCAA title last season. More importantly to Las Vegas fans, it’s also the type of system utilized by Tarkanian during the Rebels’ glory years. Rice played under Tarkanian (as did current assistant Stacey Augmon), and Tark’s coaching DNA is evident in Rice’s approach.
The up-tempo system is also demanding to teach and difficult to execute. So even as the UNLV public relations team told fans the Rebels were ready to run during Rice’s first two years, the truth is those teams weren’t built to play that game. Now they are.
If anyone understands the intricacies of Rice’s system and coaching philosophies, it’s his brother, Grant Rice, the head coach at basketball powerhouse Bishop Gorman High School. And he sees signs that the fast-paced running game will return in 2013-14.
“Everyone wants to get the Rebels running again, but you’ve got to have the right personnel to do that,” Grant Rice says. “Even if you’ve been coaching a certain style for years and know what kind of style you want to play, you’ve got to adjust to your roster year-to-year. You can have a thoroughbred athlete who fits in another system perfectly, but they may not be able to get out and run, for whatever reason. I think this year, the staff is very excited about the roster they have and being able to play the way they really want to play at UNLV.”
So if Dave Rice’s team is now stocked with “his guys,” what makes a “Rice guy” different than a “Kruger guy?” After all, Kruger won a lot of games and had plenty of success at UNLV (including a run to the Sweet 16 in 2006-07). The best example might be Justin Hawkins. Recruited by Kruger, Hawkins played two years under Rice and was probably the Rebels’ most versatile wing player last season. Most of his playing time (22.4 minutes per game) came as a reserve shooting guard, small forward and, in certain small-ball lineups, power forward.
He was also a slight 6-foot-3, with below-the-rim athletic ability. Hawkins could usually be counted on to give his best effort in games and practices, but he simply wasn’t long enough, quick enough or athletic enough to cover the entire court the way Rice wants to.
This season, the situation on the wings should be different. Those positions are crucial to Rice’s system, as they have to cover a lot of ground and power the transition game. The nominal starters at shooting guard, small forward and power forward all range from 6-foot-5 to 6-foot-8, and all possess infinitely more athleticism than Hawkins.
Included in that group is junior Roscoe Smith, the presumed starter at power forward. Smith is a wiry 6-foot-8 with enough quickness to defend multiple positions, covering both the frontcourt and backcourt. He’s also been one of the Rebels’ most aggressive defensive trappers in preseason practice so far, showing an ability to force the kind of turnovers that lead to easy points.
When asked which of his players is the ideal fit for the system he wants to run, Rice points to Smith. “Roscoe is a great example of a guy who can play multiple positions, who can guard multiple positions,” Rice says. “We’re going to play him a lot at the 4-spot, and yet he’s a perimeter player, too. He’s got the size and athleticism to guard in the post, but he’s also got the quickness and lateral speed to guard on the perimeter.”
So while the Rebels lost No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick Anthony Bennett, the drop-off at power forward may not be as precipitous as one might think, thanks to Smith’s emergence.
Another crucial roster transition has occurred at point guard. It’s Year Three, but this is the first time Rice will have one of his own guys running the point. In his first two seasons, he worked productively with Oscar Bellfield and Anthony Marshall—both were recruited by Kruger, and both did a solid job for Rice.
But they were also both in the Hawkins category when it came to open-court ability—in fact, Marshall played out of his natural 2-guard position. Now, Rice has a stable of his own recruits—junior Deville Smith, sophomore Daquan Cook and freshman Kendall Smith (yes, a third Smith, none related)—capable of manning the point. All three were brought in because of their ability to play the type of game Rice wants to play, and now Rice has the luxury of throwing all three into the fire and determining which player produces best in the up-tempo system.
Deville Smith—who started his college career as a highly touted prospect at Mississippi State but transferred to junior college after his freshman year—is the most accomplished of the three and the likely starter. But Cook is the most experienced when it comes to playing in Rice’s system.
“We base our offense on our defense,” Cook says, “so the point guards, we have to press up on the ball, get up on the ball, and make sure there are no blow-by’s. No stupid turnovers, no mistakes on offense. We just have to make sure we run the team and keep our guys in check.”
In practices, Rice has been harder on his point guards than any other players. “We ask a lot of our point guards,” he says, “and that’s because of how important that position is to what we want to do. We need leadership from the point guard spot. We need a guy who defends his position, quarterbacks our defense and makes sure we do a good job of getting the ball stopped—and who then runs our transition offense and our half-court offense, and just gets other people involved. It’s the hardest position to play. I’m happy we have as many options as we do.”
So, in his third year, Rice has put his stamp on the point guard position much the way he’s put his stamp on the entire program. His playbook is fully installed. The Rebels pressure full-court at every practice—something they didn’t do last year—and they’re actively hunting for turnovers and open-court transition chances. The players appear enthusiastic about getting after it from baseline to baseline this season.
A word of warning for fans: It’s not a perfect team—the lack of consistent outside shooting could hinder the Rebels, and the squad is thin in the frontcourt behind centers Birch and Lopez-Sosa. But this should be the most accurate representation of a Rice-coached team so far during his time at UNLV.
“I think that Year Three will be very telling for everything,” Grant Rice says. “We know what the slogans were the first two years—“Let’s Run” or whatever—and what Dave really wanted to do was run. It didn’t work out how they wanted to the first couple of years, but I know they’re really excited about the guys they have now.”