Rebel Evolution

After the team’s poor start, many UNLV basketball fans had harsh words for coach Dave Rice. But then the Rebels nearly knocked off mighty Arizona—and showed that the season can still be saved.

Rebels forward Christian Wood (5) and guard Kevin Olekaibe (3) and Arizona Wildcats forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (23) battle for positioning during the first half at McKale Center. Photo by Casey Sapio | USA Today sports

Rebels forward Christian Wood (5) and guard Kevin Olekaibe (3) and Arizona Wildcats forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (23) battle for positioning during the first half at McKale Center.
Photo by Casey Sapio | USA Today sports

A funny thing happened to the UNLV basketball team as it entered the final minutes of the second half of the seventh game of what had been unfolding as a nightmare season. Khem Birch scored with 3:29 left to put the Rebels ahead of Arizona, 57-56, in Tucson. The underachieving Rebels, who had lost by 21 points on their home court to UC Santa Barbara last month, showed themselves to be the equals of the No. 2-ranked Wildcats. Almost. Final score: Arizona 63, UNLV 58.

Rewind to, say, one minute before that game began on December 7: It seemed that about the only people in Social Media Land not calling for third-year UNLV coach Dave Rice to be fired were San Diego State fans, who had been using the hashtag #SaveDave to mock the Runnin’ Rebels’ struggles. (With Rice holding a 3-1 career record against the Aztecs, you would think they’d be the first ones to want him gone.) The Rebels were coming off losing three of their last four games at the Thomas & Mack Center, their worst home stretch since the 2002-03 season. And Rebel Nation—or at least a handful of its unruly districts—was leading a rebellion against Rice.

Recent Tweets from followers of the 3-4 Rebels have a distinct sky-is-falling tone. Of course, in online-commenter-land, the sky is always falling, but a special brand of venom seems to have been reserved for Rice:

Dave Rice is a horrible head coach. Clueless. … Dave Rice is so dense. … Dave Rice outcoached again last night. … Rice is not the answer, sadly. Dude is in way over his head. … Rice brand of bball is unwatchable. Like a bad AAU team.

What’s strange is that the vitriol toward Rice isn’t new; it started almost immediately after he was hired in April 2011 over another, much flashier, former Rebel, Reggie Theus. Rice won over some early critics with his hire of UNLV legend Stacey Augmon as an assistant—and with his plan to run like the Rebels of old. But soon Rice became a victim of that stylistic promise (and the incessant marketing of it): The Rebels were slow to master his fast-paced system, and nostalgic fans began to complain as much about aesthetics as about results. Meanwhile, Rice fell victim to his own recruiting success: By attracting high school All-Americans and talented transfers to UNLV (including this year’s top NBA draft pick, Anthony Bennett), he’s ramped up many fans’ expectations to Final Four-or-bust levels.

It takes time, though, for even the most talented groups to learn to play as a team—and most of this year’s Rebels never played together before last month. Let’s also not forget that despite the Rebels’ rough start this season, Rice’s career record at UNLV is 54-23, a better mark in his third year than any Rebels coach since Jerry Tarkanian, who was more experienced than Rice was when he came to UNLV.

If the Rebels plan on going to the NCAA Tournament in March, it’s going to take an impressive run in Mountain West Conference play—maybe even a conference title. The talent is certainly there: One-quarter of the team’s players (junior forward Birch, junior guard Jelan Kendrick, freshman forward Christian Wood) were McDonald’s High School All-Americans; junior transfer Roscoe Smith (the nation’s leading rebounder at 14.7 per game) started on Connecticut’s 2011 national championship team as a freshman; and junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones might be the Rebels’ best all-around player.

Last season, the biggest knock on UNLV was its lack of a true point guard. But freshman Kendall Smith has adapted quickly to the position at the college level, earning the starting spot after just two games, and has shown the ability to be the Rebels’ best point guard since Marcus Banks a decade ago. And senior transfer Kevin Olekaibe has provided a much-needed outside threat at the two-guard position.

Of course, much improvement is still needed: The Rebels rank almost dead last nationally in free-throw shooting at 58.4 percent; they are averaging just 69.6 points per game (255th in the nation); they need to shore up their perimeter defense; and they still haven’t shown the ability to score consistently against zone defenses.

With six upcoming games against mediocre nonconference opponents, Rice has time to fine-tune his talented collective before conference play starts in January. This could still turn out to be the season the Rebels really learn to run. Maybe then UNLV fans will be the ones embracing the #SaveDave campaign.

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