unlv basketball:

This UNLV basketball team is full of potential, facing heavy expectations

Rebels enter the season Monday ranked No. 18 and with what several feel is their best team in 20 years

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV head coach Dave Rice smiles during an exhibition game against Dixie State on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, at the Thomas & Mack.

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The Rebel Room

The Justin Hawkins Podcast

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UNLV reporter Taylor Bern welcomes in two guests to discuss senior guard Justin Hawkins — Hawkins' mother, Carmen, and author of "Play Their Hearts Out" George Dohrmann. The book features both Justin and Carmen as central figures, and Carmen and George join Taylor to dish out inside stories and discuss UNLV's "glue guy."

Dave Rice sits comfortably Tuesday at a table inside a bar at the Orleans, less than a week before the start of his second season as UNLV's basketball coach. He’s here for the inaugural Dave Rice Radio Show, and there are a handful of supporters gathered at tables near the casino floor.

At each commercial break, Rice’s 10-year-old son, Dylan, leaves his seat and goes behind the table to try on his dad’s headset. In these moments, Rice doesn’t look like a man shouldering the weight of his city’s dreams. He’s been around Las Vegas a long time, first as a player, then as an assistant and now as the man charged with bringing back past glory and maybe even hanging another Final Four banner next to Jerry Tarkanian’s four already in the rafters.

Rice has been through the rigors of hype before, both during his playing days and as an assistant at BYU when Jimmer Mania spread across the country. Those teams delivered, and he knows people want the same from this year’s UNLV team. The first listener question of Tuesday’s show came from someone asking Rice to compare this year’s team to the 1990 squad.

You mean the one that went to back-to-back Final Fours, including winning the 1990 national title? The one that had three players taken in the top 12 of the 1991 NBA draft? That one?

At UNLV, if a team shows any promise, it’s automatically compared with the best, ignoring the fact the Rebels haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2008.

That holds especially true this season, which begins tonight against visiting Northern Arizona. There’s a mixture of excitement and expectation based on last season’s start, offseason recruiting success and a rabid desire to set the clock back more than 20 years to when UNLV was on top of the basketball world.

All of that is laid at Rice’s feet day after day, piling up as it begins to form a mountain for the Rebels to climb this season. In order to get over it, the team will take its cues from its leader, and that’s why Rice leans back at the table and calmly explains that this team isn’t there yet. He doesn’t have to manage fans’ expectations, Rice says later, but he does want to shield his players from it as best he can.

“The only pressure is to stay together and play incredibly hard,” Rice said.

Think expectations aren’t high this season?

Consider this: UNLV is ranked in both the Associated Press (No. 18) and USA Today/Coaches (No. 19) preseason polls for the first time in 20 years. The Rebels recently have been featured on the front pages of national websites such as ESPN.com and SI.com, and junior Mike Moser is on countless lists and charts that try to peg either the best college basketball player or the guys most likely to have success in the NBA.

And in Las Vegas, this city of bright lights, big stars and bigger spectacles, people are primed to shift their focus a little east from the Strip to the Thomas & Mack Center, where UNLV hosts 18 games this year. That’s 18 chances, plus one at the Orleans Arena, to see and be seen at what could turn out to be the best-reviewed show in town.

“I just expect the excitement around the city to go up,” senior guard Anthony Marshall said. “Within these last couple of months, you sensed a little buzz and it was loud here and there, but I feel like it’s about to explode.”

You can see the support everywhere, Marshall said, because people literally wear it on their sleeves. A manager at Rebelbooks, a textbook and apparel shop just off campus, said there’s a direct correlation between the basketball team’s success and UNLV gear sales. Basketballs with white panels for autographs already are a hot item, and when the jerseys come in, those are likely to go quickly, too.

“I remember in high school, I didn’t see any UNLV hoodies or beanies,” said Marshall, who graduated from Mojave High. “Now you can’t walk around the city without seeing one. It’s pretty surreal to be a part of this and see the transition happen.”

The difference shows up not only in what people are wearing but also in how many of them show up for the game. UNLV had three sellouts last year at the 18,500-seat Mack — San Diego State, New Mexico and Senior Night against Wyoming — after having just three sellouts in the previous 19 seasons combined.

The Wyoming game capped a 17-0 home regular season for the Rebels, just one more reason why people are likely to come in droves. Las Vegas loves a winner, the saying goes, and that’s exactly what locals think they have this year.

Never mind that half the rotation has never played a minute for UNLV, including projected starters Anthony Bennett and Katin Reinhardt, both true freshmen. Never mind that Marshall is changing positions, from shooting guard to point guard, a move that means Moser is the only returning starter in the same position, and even he’s moving to different spot on the floor. Last year, Moser was one of the nation’s leading rebounders while playing both inside and out. This year he’s trying to match that production while playing more outside than in, the role he likely will fill next year in the NBA.

Moser came to Las Vegas from UCLA when Lon Kruger still was UNLV’s coach. It’s possible the Rebels would have had some of the same success on the court and in recruiting over the past year under Kruger, but thus far it appears in his absence UNLV found the right man for the job.

“He’s the most ideal coach coming into the situation for all of us, I think,” Moser said of Rice. “We didn’t have an identity at the time. Being able to put in a run-and-gun style really helped us.”

It’s also helped spike interest in the program.

While UNLV is unlikely to surpass the single-season attendance record from the 1990-91 season — 18,685 per game — it has a chance to break the total attendance record of 303,597 from 1989-90. The total attendance figures will include the Mountain West Conference tournament at the Mack, meaning the Rebels could play up to 21 games in their home arena. If they make it to the conference tournament finals, UNLV needs just a tick more than the 14,474 average attendance last season.

With any measure of success, that’s all but guaranteed. More than 12,500 came out for UNLV’s nail-biting exhibition victory against Dixie State , and tonight’s opener is all but guaranteed to be sold out. Season ticket sales have been on the rise since June, when only 800 were left. More recently, there were fewer than 100 remaining , randomly scattered throughout the arena’s lower level. Anyone hoping to show up at the ticket counter just before a game risks going home empty-handed.

Two fans who will help account for that attendance number are Hector and Randi Vazquez, who have been UNLV fans dating to the glory days in the late 1980s and early ’90s. On one wall in their living room is a Rebels shrine that includes panoramic posters from both the night the national championship banner was raised and one from a game just a few years ago that you can find at several stores around town. They can point to themselves in the stands in both photos.

“We’ve been waiting for this season since the minute last year ended,” Randi Vazquez told senior guard Justin Hawkins when he hand-delivered their season tickets Oct. 22. “It could be something special.”

Those with their sights focused beyond just this season have to be pretty happy, too. With Findlay Prep forward Chris Wood and former McDonald’s All-American Jelan Kendrick among those set to join the team next year, Rice is aiming to build something that lasts beyond whatever UNLV achieves this season. And considering the new facilities, he will have a chance to do so, with no small credit due to the same people who expect another banner this year.

“That’s probably the biggest thing, the fan support,” Moser said. “I don’t know too many high school kids who would come in and see the love we get, the reception we get around the city and wouldn’t want to come here. I guess the challenge is getting them to come here first.”

Winning goes a long way toward solving that, and for UNLV this year, that’s going to look a lot like last year’s success with an edge. There were a lot of problems down the stretch last season that led to road losses and a first-weekend exit from the tournament. One of them has been solved, Rice said, with the addition of guys such as sophomore Bryce Dejean-Jones and freshman Savon Goodman.

“The true trademark of UNLV teams is toughness,” Rice said. “You can talk about the other things, but that’s where it starts.”

Marshall has spent time watching those teams he’s supposed to emulate this year.

“They played hard on every possession, no matter who they were playing,” he said. “For us, we can’t go out and underestimate anybody. You can’t just get up for the North Carolina games. You’ve got to get up as well for the Dixie State games.”

In Rice’s first year, the Rebels didn’t play like that. They had letdowns and they got tired. Some of that was solved on the recruiting trail, but the final answer will come from day-to-day execution, from working to get better instead of letting people tell them they’re already there, from climbing that mountain until they reach the point where potential and production meet and they maximize both.

That’s where UNLV is trying to go. It’s where so many people hope and others expect the Rebels will go. If things go right, the weight of that expectation will grow as the season progresses.

And if it does, the country will find out just what Rice is building in Las Vegas. Whether it’s a flop or a headliner, there’s no hiding from the spotlight now.

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

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  1. Anything less than a Final Four appearance will be disappointing with the amount of talent on the Rebel squad. Run As One.

  2. It's really disappointing that the game has been near sellout for some time and yet no local station has swooped in to televise it or any future non-televised game for that matter. I don't think it matters that it is not a high profile game, people are excited and would watch. It'd be nice to have some answers.

  3. Is the game being streamed online anywhere?

  4. @sportsarefun, go to unlvrebels.com. They mention there will be a feed there. The only catch is you need to subscribe.

  5. There will be a bullseye for every UNLV game on opponents schedules from here on out. UNLV will get every team's 100% effort and I hope it translates into making them tougher and a very difficult team to encounter. Finally, college basketball season is back!

  6. This is unreal. Why is this town so hooked up on "The Glory Years" I have never heard such ridiculousness. How can you possibly compare two teams with a 21 year gap between them. Thats just absolutely crazy. Those were different times, and different caliber of players. Ok UNLV had two great years, it's time to move on. Let it be for what it is now. I hope UNLV has a sucessful season, I wish them the best of luck. Their only weak spot is Mr. Rice, will he become a real coach, or just a reminder, a hint, a memory of "The Glory Years" LOL. Go Hoosiers!!!