From the stands: A Rebel fan’s account of the Dave Rice era
For Runnin’ Rebel fans it’s been a rough few years and well, maybe even a rough decade; where close games turn into losses and favored contests escalate to upsets. Everyone from the diehard to the casual fan has become livid beyond reason at some point. Twitter has long served as the medium for expressing dismay in these cases and if you’re one of those people there’s a good chance you’ve interacted with Shawn Cunningham at some point. The long-time Vegas local is actively one of the best follows on Twitter for UNLV sports and college basketball in general. This week, we recruited him to give his perspective on why the Rice era didn’t end the way so many thought it would, including himself.
But first, a little about Shawn:
Why I became a Rebel Fan: I am a local REALTOR, food loving and traveling fool. I have lived in Las Vegas since the 4th grade and I attended UNLV from 2001-2008. I credit one of the best friends I ever had with getting me involved with UNLV basketball specifically during the Sweet 16 year. He was a passionate, somewhat unbalanced Runnin’ Rebels fan. When he died prematurely 7 years ago, I became a Rebel lifer in his honor. Although I thankfully can take losses a little better than he ever could!
I remember vividly the moment I first heard Dave Rice was named UNLV’s head coach. I was driving, and had a very euphoric drive home. I knew this was what we needed to stop acting like a “good mid-major” and move back up to elite level. Someone who wouldn’t settle for “good enough”.
To rewind a bit further… (although fans won’t admit it now) most were up in arms at Lon Kruger in 2011. After beating Kent State and losing to eventual national champ Kansas in 2008, UNLV suffered through an underachieving NIT year, a first round loss to Northern Iowa and a blowout loss to Illinois in 2011. I’ll never forget sitting through that humiliating loss to Illinois and how despondent fans were. The team just looked disinterested from the tip (yes that occurred before Rice arrived too).
I always liked Lon Kruger, but felt we just didn’t recruit well enough to achieve our goals of winning the league and winning in March. Ironically with Coach Rice, we recruited plenty well enough to do both, but couldn’t put together a cohesive product. As it turns out, maybe all we needed was Dave Rice on Lon Kruger’s UNLV coaching staff, but we’ll never know on that one.
I believe there are five main reasons Rice did not succeed at UNLV:
- From the start, Rice over-reacted to pressure to win. If you look back, recruiting kids like Katin Reinhardt and overly indulging blue chip recruits like Anthony Bennett really hurt him early. The desire to show other NBA quality talents that you can get drafted at UNLV made sense as a long term play, but I believe established the culture early of “N-B-A” being more important than “U-N-L-V”. Another “milestone” game I will never forget is sitting through a game in little Clune Arena and looking up at the scoreboard with UNLV more than 20 points down… to Air Force. With the eventual No. 1 draft pick. It was an ugly, listless performance, particularly by Anthony Bennett who looked like he had never left Vegas. While a coach with less pressure could’ve just benched a lottery pick to send him a badly-needed message, I believe Coach Rice boxed himself. He had to give guys who may not have put much effort in on defense too much attitude (and playing time). Could he afford to lose a few games and potential future NBA caliber talents to establish clearly what would be tolerated? He clearly didn’t think so.
- Failure to recruit a quality point guard. Lon Kruger’s last few teams really didn’t have a true point guard either, but they had guards who could be trusted not to make too many mistakes and keep order on the court (in football, they are called game managers). Could Rice’s desire to show loyalty to guys like Marshall have led to him not taking on potential point guard recruits? I don’t know the answer, but whatever the reasoning is, Rice needed point guards early and often, and never got the right one. While I think a really good coach doesn’t have to have one (Coach K won the title in 2010 without a point guard) in the case of a new, learning coach, a “coach on the floor” was critical. Making matters worse….
- Coach Rice over-relied on transfers to fill the gap at point guard and other spots. Cody Doolin was a backup point guard as was Deville Smith. Jerome Seagears (despite my optimism) isn’t even a backup point guard – he’s a driving shooting guard who really shouldn’t play point at all. Once again, Rice was left with no choice due to inability to get a point guard out of high school, and mis-evaluating transfers. While transfers like Khem Birch, Roscoe Smith and Ben Carter were great for UNLV, the lack of four-year players along side them killed contiuity every year. The offseason exodus, and the resulting need to “plug in” transfers made Rice’s job even harder. Instead of reinforcing concepts, he had to re-teach and re-integrate new rosters year after year.
- Coach Rice struggled at in-game adjustments. As someone who was a huge Coach Rice fan and had probably as much patience with him as anyone, this was one thing I lived in denial about for years. While he had occasional games where he outreached the opposition, there were too many where an opposing adjustment led to no counter adjustments at all. Sometimes a simple zone defense was enough to confound UNLV’s teams, and it happened year after year. The past two years in particular saw repeated second half collapses than can only be attributed to coaching adjustments.
- Coach Rice’s teams didn’t buy in. Ironically his first year’s team was probably the most bought in to what he wanted, but every year, we see worse and worse shot selection, few paint touches, more porous perimeter defense. I have no doubt that Rice emphasized these things in practice constantly, but they just don’t translate on the court, which is a sign of a coach who can’t get through to his team.
Another day I won’t forget is when Dave Rice was fired at UNLV. Those in the know were not surprised it was coming, but it still stung. Obviously Dave Rice is a “nice guy” is a common reason stated, but more than that, I sincerely believe no one wants to return UNLV to elite status more than Coach Rice. But desire isn’t enough, and in some ways, the pressure on him may have been his undoing from the start.
I think we may see better play more consistently under interim Coach Todd Simon, if for no other reason than he doesn’t have pressure. The team as a result doesn’t have pressure, they can actually get back to enjoying the game of basketball, and a UNLV team that plays loose is a dangerous team in my opinion.
I loved the quote during the New Mexico game where Coach Simon told the team, “They’re not as good as us, let’s show them Rebel basketball.” That statement alone shows why he was the right guy for the job, at this point in time.
This team needs more juice, more passion, more freedom, and within that, more accountability. I am excited to see if this season can at least bring back some style, even if it’s too late to make the NCAA tournament, which remains to be seen.
Be sure to follow Shawn on Twitter for more stats and insight on the Rebels as well as the rest of the college basketball world @VegasRebelFan
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