The Case for UNLV’s Dave RicePosted by Bennet Hayes on February 27th, 2014
For those interested in bashing Dave Rice this season, it hasn’t been a challenge finding a few friends to join in on the fun. Even our own Andrew Murawa took a rip at UNLV’s walking, breathing, coaching piñata a few weeks back, listing Rice dead last in a ranking of the MW’s 11 current head coaches. This lack of love from Mr. Murawa and others is understandable: The Rebels have slogged their way through a season that began with a seemingly loaded roster and Mountain West title aspirations. Thomas & Mack Arena has turned uncharacteristically hospitable — feel free to ask Air Force, Nevada and UC Santa Barbara about UNLV’s new, friendlier visitor initiative if you don’t believe me. The Runnin’ Rebels may still finish third in the Mountain West and UNLV fans will fairly entertain hopes of running the table (at home) in the MW Tournament to find a backdoor into the Big Dance, but like the Vegas weekender stumbling onto his Sunday flight home, there is no hiding the disappointment for this UNLV team. Just don’t blame Dave Rice.
Remember last year’s UNLV team? The one that won 25 games and earned a #5 seed in the NCAA Tournament? If the memories aren’t flowing in, don’t look to this year’s team for any help. The only current Rebels to earn serious minutes a season ago are Khem Birch and Bryce Dejean-Jones — the result of Rice losing seven rotation players from last year’s team. Adding to the offseason chaos was the fact that four of those seven departees still possessed college eligibility, so their decisions to pursue basketball careers elsewhere (for a variety of reasons) were largely unplanned. The impact of those defections has been dramatically overlooked by Rice critics; lose that much talent and production from any team, and creating a brand-new winner the next season is bound to be difficult. For every Kansas there is a Miami, Temple or Illinois, where rebuilding years are understood as necessary steps to a brighter future. Somehow the folks in Sin City missed the memo preaching leniency in the wake of an offseason exodus, as most explanations for the Rebel malaise have skipped over the overhaul, choosing instead to focus on the perceived deficiencies of the man at the helm.
I’m as guilty of anyone as being a blind slave to the number of stars next to a high school recruit’s name, but for all the acclaim that this current group of Rebels received in their pre-college days, their talent doesn’t actually measure up. If you want to take this opportunity to criticize Rice’s player development, keep in mind that in just his second season he helped Anthony Bennett become the #1 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, while also grooming Anthony Marshall into a point guard few thought he could be. As for this year’s team, freshmen Kendall Smith and Christian Wood, top-100 recruits both, are still a ways away from being regular contributors on a Tournament-caliber team, and it doesn’t take long to figure out that Jelan Kendrick is not the same guy who suited up for the 2010 McDonald’s All-American game. Neither Khem Birch nor Roscoe Smith has underachieved relative to expectations, per se, but neither possesses the skill set to solve UNLV’s biggest problem – scoring the basketball.
The Rebels have been an improved offensive unit in recent games, but if you need to know just how starved Rice’s team is for offensive talent, look no further than Kevin Olekaibe’s extreme workload this season. The senior transfer from Fresno State is an adequate shooter and positive locker room influence, but his offensive rating never exceeded 103.0 in his three seasons in central California, during which time the Bulldogs went just 14-32 in conference play (that includes two seasons in a bad, bad WAC). But on this UNLV team, only Khem Birch has played more minutes than Olekaibe, whose good-but-not-great three-point stroke makes him an incredibly valued commodity. Four of his teammates have attempted 40 or more three-pointers this season, but none of them have connected on more than 31 percent of those attempts. Twelve months ago, I’m pretty sure that Dave Rice didn’t think he would be giving 30 minutes a game to the fourth-best player on the worst team in the Mountain West, and yet, here we are.
Even if you disagree with the contention that Rice has been hamstrung on the court this season, you CANNOT argue with his work on the recruiting trails. Rice has been a victim of his own success in that regard this season, but the pipeline of talent to Vegas shows no signs of letting up. Rice snagged a commitment from McDonald’s All-American Rashad Vaughn (Class of 2014) just two weeks ago, a decision that fills out an extremely talented class of freshman arriving on campus in the fall (Rice has two other consensus top 25 recruits — Goodluck Okonoboh and Dwayne Morgan — on board for next year). Rice is not just competing with college basketball’s titans in these recruiting wars, but he’s actually beating them. UNLV may be a program with a substantial history, but let’s also not forget that from 1991-2007, the Rebs went 16 years without an NCAA Tournament victory. Attracting talent to Vegas hasn’t always been an easy proposition – that is, until Dave Rice arrived.
UNLV knocked off Colorado State on Wednesday night to improve to 9-6 in the league, but anyone who has monitored the schizophrenic Rebels knows they could easily find a way to lose their final three games (at Air Force, vs SDSU, at Nevada) in advance of a quiet exit from the MW Tournament. That scenario would undoubtedly induce more angst towards Rice, but even if that nightmare comes to pass, the man deserves a break. He’s been working with a far different (read: significantly more offensively challenged) team in 2013-14 than he envisioned, and no matter how this group finishes up, there is going to be loads of exciting talent on campus next season. I’ll predict at least one poor decision to leap for the NBA from the trio of Birch/Smith/BDJ, but the return of even two of those guys would make next year’s UNLV team downright scary. If that squad bumbles through MW mediocrity en route to an NIT appearance, then we can begin to hold serious discussions about the coaching ability and future of Rice. But the most important point until that happens? Despite the slight dip this season, this is a program on the rise – and Dave Rice is to thank for that.