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The Rebels’ uphill battle creates lasting feeling they will carry into 2012-13 season

A promising season went awry in February and March, leaving the returning and incoming UNLV players to pick up the pieces

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV head coach Dave Rice grabs his head as he leaves the court with assistant coach Justin Hutson after being upset by Colorado 68-64 in the second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Thursday, March 15, 2012 in Albuquerque.

Wed, Mar 21, 2012 (2 a.m.)

The Rebels’ final journey of the 2011-12 season was an uphill climb, an arduous and ultimately disappointing path from The Pit floor up a steep ramp to the locker room, where they were left to contemplate a third straight first-game exit from the NCAA Tournament.

That walk, the same one UNLV took less than a month earlier after a 20-point loss to New Mexico, mirrored the Rebels’ battles at the end of the season. They went 12-1 in the middle of the year and finished 5-6 down the stretch, including Thursday’s season-ending 68-64 loss to Colorado.

“It’s important for us to bottle up exactly how we feel right now, so we can get to work,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said in Albuquerque, “because while this was a very rewarding season — we’re proud of a lot of the things that we accomplished — we didn’t ever feel like we were satisfied with how it went.”

Rice’s first months on the job had that too-good-to-be-true vibe that’s so easy to spot in retrospect but felt like rational optimism at the time. The Rebels started the year 8-0, including a victory against then-No. 1 North Carolina. They were 21-3 on Feb. 1 and, all told, spent 14 weeks in the national rankings.

The “Let’s Run” slogan that decorated billboards and posters was supposed to be a link back to Rice’s days as a player at UNLV. And in the best of times, that’s exactly what it looked like. When this team was making jump shots and getting out in transition, it looked nearly unstoppable.

The problem was that the Rebels couldn’t take that show on the road. They finished 6-8 outside of Las Vegas, with blame largely resting on the defense.

UNLV’s style requires turnovers to create offense. Without step one, they had a much more difficult time completing step two.

Take the final game, for instance. Colorado led by as much as 20 in the second half before UNLV put on a full-court press that, in a four-minute span, created six turnovers and led to a 12-0 run that cut the deficit to two. But the Rebels couldn’t sustain that energy and missed their next seven shots as Colorado pulled away for the victory.

The reason UNLV didn’t go to a press earlier in the game, or use it much in other games during the final stretch, may have been as much about that 0-for-7 stretch as anything else.

“I do think that we’ve got a team that’s been a little bit tired,” Rice said.

Potential 2012-13 Starters

1. Anthony Marshall: The leader of the Rebels, Marshall's biggest problem may be trying to do too much.

2. Justin Hawkins (x): He already plays a starter's minutes, and it's a close race between him and Marshall for the team's best on-ball defender.

3. Bryce Jones: At this point, Jones' biggest challenge will be living up to the hype made by those who have seen him in practice this year.

4. Mike Moser: A breakout sophomore season ended with a thud, but any coach would be happy to bring back a double-double machine.

5. Carlos Lopez (y): This is a toss-up between Lopez and Quintrell Thomas, but Lopez gets the nod for his offensive efficiency.

(x) Hawkins has been great off the bench, so this spot may belong to incoming freshman Katin Reinhardt if coach Dave Rice is comfortable enough with him.

(y) At this point, the Lopez/Thomas debate seems to be just a placeholder for center of the future Khem Birch, who's eligible after the Fall 2012 semester.

That could be seen with sophomore forward Mike Moser, who went into the paint less and less down the stretch, shooting 3-for-13 behind the 3-point line in the final two games.

Another problem the team faced, Rice said, was finding a “go-to guy” at the end of games.

Senior small forward Chace Stanback was that guy at the beginning of the season, but his production fell off dramatically on the road, and he averaged just 6.4 points over the final five games. Moser also looked like that guy at various times, but his sophomore slump — a four-game stretch in February where he averaged 6.5 points — came at in inopportune time, and he only showed flashes of his first-team all-conference brilliance the rest of the way.

That Rice had the season he did — 26-9 overall, undefeated at home in the regular season — is commendable considering he did so with a roster made up entirely of former coach Lon Kruger’s players.

“New coaching staff, players really didn’t know how to react at first, but I think we all bought into the system well,” junior guard Justin Hawkins said. “We got a lot of good wins.”

UNLV loses three starters — Stanback, point guard Oscar Bellfield and center Brice Massamba — and reserve guard Kendall Wallace, all of whom Rice showered with praise this season. But next year, when Rice will bring his own recruits, is when the team should start to have more of the look and feel he’s going for in the future. That starts with Bryce Jones, a 6-foot-5 wing, who was sitting out this year after transferring from USC.

Jones is super athletic — a common theme of the incoming players — and hates to lose, as evidenced by his highly entertaining one-on-one battles with Bellfield after several practices this season. He’ll bring the toughness that was missing and has an outside shot of becoming that go-to player in close games.

The other newcomer already on the roster is 6-foot-9 forward Khem Birch, who never considered UNLV until he saw the Rebels take down the Tar Heels. Birch, a former McDonald’s All-American, transferred in a few months later and will be eligible after the fall 2012 semester. His offense will need some work, but plug him into this year’s lineup and he may have led the league in blocked shots. The best things he could do for next year’s Rebels are rebound and do his best to be the inside presence UNLV so desperately needed.

The high school class includes Katin Reinhardt (6-4 guard), Demetris Morant (6-8 forward) and DaQuan Cook (6-1 guard).

Rice was an assistant at BYU during the Jimmer Fredette Show, and Reinhardt could be that type of player for UNLV. Gorman’s Morant is much like Birch, where his offense lags behind his defense, while Cook is a likely candidate to redshirt next season.

Add that to the nucleus of Moser, Hawkins and junior guard Anthony Marshall plus returning players Quintrell Thomas, Carlos Lopez and Reggie Smith, and there’s plenty of reason to be excited about next season.

The Rebels also have one more open scholarship for a guy like Gorman’s Shabazz Muhammad or Findlay Prep big man Anthony Bennett. UNLV could have a second scholarship opening if sophomore forward Karam Mashour, who was unhappy with his minutes earlier this year, would elect to transfer in search of more playing time.

Whether or not the Rebels add one or more marquee guys like Muhammad or Bennett, the pieces are in place to better mold the future in Rice’s mind’s eye.

“There are special things that are happening,” Rice said, “and this is the start.”

The journey starts again next November. It’s to the Rebels to keep it from becoming another uphill battle.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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Discussion: 2 comments so far…

  1. During conference play, they really got lazy and didn't play in-your-face defense that worked. It takes a lot of energy to do that, and play such strong defense, and then run out in transition to do it all over again...but that's what it's going to come down to.