Can the Rebels Return to the NCAA?

With an overhauled roster highlighted by several young players, this year’s Rebels appear to be a long shot to return to the Big Dance. Here’s why they just might buck those odds.

Photo by Josh Metz

Photo by Josh Metz

Mike Grimala talks Rebels basketball on 97.1 the Point. Listen to the broadcast below.

After qualifying for the NCAA tournament in coach Dave Rice’s first two seasons, UNLV came up short last year, stumbling to a 20-13 record and a fourth-place finish in the Mountain West. The team underperformed—not only on both ends of the floor but also in the locker room—and when March rolled around, the Rebels were left out in the cold.

But this is a new season, and the Rebels field an almost entirely new team. Last year’s five starters are gone, and the 2014-15 roster features seven newcomers in all. Such turnover would be a major cause for concern within some programs, but given the turmoil surrounding last year’s Rebels, Rice’s new crop of very young, but very talented players has led to renewed hope for a bounce-back campaign. Will that campaign end with a ticket to the NCAA tournament? We’ve got seven reasons why that’s not as big of a pipe dream as some might believe:

The Cupboard Ain’t Bare
More than anything else, talent wins—and UNLV has plenty of it this season. Some of it is young, as blue-chip freshmen Rashad Vaughn, Dwayne Morgan and Goodluck Okonoboh will all play heavy minutes. But that trio’s sheer talent alone should keep the Rebels in most games. And two of the team’s most important returning players, sophomores Chris Wood and Kendall Smith, are loaded with ability. Now that they’ve had a full year in Rice’s system, look for their roles to expand. Put it all together, and on paper, the Rebels are more talented than they were in 2013-14.

Wood Could Be (Really) Good
Speaking of Wood, the 6-foot-11 forward looks poised for a breakout season. He’s always possessed the tools to be an impact player on offense and defense, but he was raw last year as a true freshman (4.5 points, 3.2 rebounds per game). After an offseason spent developing his body and honing his game, Wood has been impressive in preseason practices. The key, of course, is carrying it over into games, because UNLV is going to lean on him, something Wood seems to understand. “I’ve talked to Coach Rice, [and] he says I have to step up and be a leader. That’s what I need to do, and that’s what I will do.”

Here’s the Point
Rice has spent the better part of his three years as head coach searching for a “true point guard,” and senior transfer Cody Doolin is probably the closest yet to that ideal. He started more than 100 games at the University of San Francisco, earning praise for his basketball IQ and toughness. “I just try to make the right play every time, whether that’s passing the ball or taking the shot myself,” Doolin says. “If you just focus on doing what’s best for the team, and just trying to make the correct play every time, the rest will take care of itself.”

They’ve Got Range
After watching the Rebels shoot an ice-cold 32.9 percent from 3-point land last season while opposing defenses packed the paint game after game, Rice made a concerted effort to stock the roster with more capable outside shooters. Doolin, Vaughn, Morgan and Wood should all be long-distance upgrades at their positions, and that’s before factoring in any contributions from redshirt freshman Dantley Walker, a legendary shooter (see Page 22) and the proverbial wild card in the rotation. Rice has even talked about playing small lineups more often and flooding the floor with sharpshooters in an attempt to loosen up defenses. The style should be fun to watch, and with the Rebels’ offensive firepower, it should be effective, too.

Bring on the Big Boys
Last year, the Rebels played just two non-conference opponents who went on to make the NCAA tournament (Arizona and Arizona State), and they lost both games. That didn’t exactly help their résumé on Selection Sunday. So as part of his long-term plan to raise the program’s profile, Rice has beefed up the schedule this season. The Rebels will take on likely top-10 teams Arizona and Kansas, in addition to a November trip to New York (and a possible matchup against Duke) for the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. They’ve also got dates with potential NCAA tournament teams Utah and Stanford. Win a couple of those marquee games, and it should go a long way with the selection committee.

The Mountain West Can Be Won
If there’s one certainty that can be gleaned from preseason previews it’s that nothing is certain about the Mountain West. The conference is wide open (with San Diego State being a slight favorite). That means the young Rebels will be able to get their feet wet and gain experience during their tough nonconference slate without being ground into dust during the early portion of the league schedule. Even if UNLV needs some time to find its stride—preseason prognosticators have the Rebels finishing anywhere from second to seventh—a regular-season conference championship is definitely in play … as is a conference tourney title at the Thomas & Mack Center.

With a New Team Comes a New Attitude
Cohesiveness was not one of the Rebels’ strengths last season. Poor chemistry in the locker room manifested itself on the court at times, and the numbers bear that out: UNLV went from second in the nation in assists in 2011-12 to 10th in 2013-14 to 121st last year. But the current crew seems to be getting along, with the five true freshmen all enjoying pre-existing friendships, while incoming transfers Doolin, Ben Carter and Jerome Seagears all carry reputations as team-first guys. The air has cleared, and a more unselfish brand of basketball should do wonders for the 2014-15 Rebels.

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