Wednesday, April 6, 2011 | 8:30 p.m.
- UNLV announces official list of finalists for vacant men’s basketball job
- Livengood returns to Las Vegas today; coaching search hitting home stretch
- Lon Kruger says he doesn’t see Oklahoma as a rebuilding project
- Notebook: UNLV AD Jim Livengood’s coaching search heats up in Houston
- UNLV players, recruits react to news of Kruger's departure
- Brewer: Kruger leaving for Oklahoma isn't all that bad
- Jerry Tarkanian: Oklahoma's athletic department has deep pockets
- So, who's the odds-on favorite for Kruger's job?
- A look at Lon Kruger's coaching history at UNLV
- The coaches who have led the Rebels through the decades
BYU guard Jackson Emery can recall several flights home from wins on the road in recent years during which he and his teammates would sit back, relax and talk about their most recent triumph.
A few rows up, though, he said, there would always be at least one laptop screen glowing.
It belonged to associate head coach Dave Rice.
"He'd be watching the game again, making mental notes, rewinding, fast-forwarding, studying," Emery recalled. "You'd say, 'Hey, we won, take the night off, rest, get up early tomorrow and do it.' But he'd be right on it, right then. It's weird; it's unique, but that's what makes certain people good is when you're different from everyone else."
Rice's noted work ethic is just one of several qualities that Emery and other former BYU players believe make him an ideal candidate to take over the reins at UNLV, where he formally interviewed on Wednesday afternoon.
Rice is one of four finalists for the post, which opened when Lon Kruger unexpectedly took off for Oklahoma last Friday. A week later, UNLV is on the verge of deciding who his successor will be, as Athletic Director Jim Livengood will have all four interviews completed by Thursday night, with a decision coming not long after.
Several sources close to the search this week have indicated to the Sun that Rice is holding strong as the lead candidate. He was a reserve guard for Jerry Tarkanian on UNLV's back-to-back Final Four teams in 1990 and 1991, and since his coaching career began not long after his playing days, it's been no secret that becoming the Rebels' head coach is Rice's end game.
This was always sensed by the players he coached at BYU, who faced UNLV twice each regular season in Mountain West Conference play. He ended up in Provo in 2005 after spending 11 seasons as a UNLV assistant.
"You don't spend 10-plus years at a place if it doesn't hold a special place in your heart," former BYU swingman Lee Cummard said via e-mail from France, where he's playing pro ball. "We knew that as players, but we also knew that he wanted to win games against Vegas as much as any other, if not more. There is no question everybody sees the writing on the wall."
Added Emery: "I know he's always had an eye on that target, but realistically, he thought he wouldn't have that opportunity for a while. So I think he's really excited to have this chance."
Each of the other three finalists — Minnesota Timberwolves assistant Reggie Theus, St. John's assistant Mike Dunlap and former Oregon coach Ernie Kent — have head coaching experience in the collegiate ranks. Dunlap was in town for his interview on Wednesday night, while Theus and Kent both take a seat in front of Livengood on Thursday.
While Rice has never held the specific title, his former players think that detracting from his credentials because of it makes no sense, citing his expansive level of involvement in all facets under BYU head coach Dave Rose. He's also headed up the Cougars' recruiting efforts while in Provo.
Cummard and Emery both noted that Rice did just as much instructing and teaching as Rose did during timeouts and in the halftime locker room. Both also insisted that their individual games may have never hit the level they did without Rice's presence.
"Coach Rice had the biggest impact on my development as a player at BYU," Cummard said. "He would teach me on-the-court specifics, but what I liked about him was that he was always open to have a conversation about my development and be completely honest about my personal play. What I could do more of, do less of, what I needed to work on. He was always genuine."
By his senior season in 2008-09, Cummard developed into a first-team All-MWC performer. Emery, as a senior this spring, earned second team mention. Both turned into reliable, versatile offensive forces within the offense that Rice orchestrates.
As the two both explained, the offense is centered on keeping the game at a frenetic pace, though not necessarily jacking up a shot within the first five or 10 seconds of the shot clock. Instead, if nothing opens up immediately on the perimeter, the ball moves through the post, with everyone in constant motion. That not only makes for high-scoring, entertaining affairs, but it has a tendency to draw opponents out of their comfort zones, which can also lead to a bevy of easy transition buckets.
All along, Rice calls the shots.
"It just gets everyone sped up defensively and offensively and into a rhythm that we like to play in," Emery said.
Emery averaged 12.5 points per game as a combo guard during the Cougars' 32-5 campaign that ended in the Sweet Sixteen last month. He was freed up to score in a variety of ways, along with the nation's leading scorer and Player of the Year Jimmer Fredette, in a system that he believes would translate well given UNLV's returning personnel.
"The one thing that's always impressed me about UNLV is their ability to press, and the reason they can do that is they have athletic guys, from their point guard to their post guys, which allows them to rush guys on the defensive side. But if you apply that on the offensive side, where they're athletic and quick and have good full-court awareness, it opens up a lot of things," Emery explained. "At the same time, they've got a lot of good shooters, with (Oscar) Bellfield and (Chace) Stanback, then they have (Anthony) Marshall, who's just an athletic guy who can go coast-to-coast very easily.
"They have the makings of a good transition team, where they're capable of getting up and down the floor, running in transition and really controlling the tempo of the game."
Whether he gets that chance should be known soon.
Rice heads back to Provo from his interview on Thursday, having been given a fair shot to say his piece and present his plan for the program to Livengood and the school's administration.
When asked what he would say to the UNLV brass in support of Rice, Cummard said that he believes the track record itself says enough, even without the specific detail of a "head coach" label on the résumé. The year before Rose and Rice arrived in Provo, BYU went 9-21. In the six years since, they've gone 159-45, finishing no lower than second in the MWC and winning at least 20 games each season. The players believe that Rice is as responsible for that success as anyone.
"He wins and is successful wherever he goes," he said. "People love him. Players love him and his family and love to play for him. He is a winner and does it the right way.
"It's time for coach Rice to get his shot as a head coach. He's paid his dues, he is proven and is very qualified."