Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012 | 11 a.m.
- Rebels report card: Several newcomers receive high marks
- Rebels report card: Returners work back into rhythm in Canada to varying success
- Winning week: UNLV’s 4-0 record in Canada allows it to focus on important things from trip
- Canada trip, including 74-59 win at McGill in finale, puts some of Rebels’ pieces in place
- Dunk fest: Rebels run away from Laval 97-62 in easiest victory of their Canadian tour
- Bryce Dejean-Jones leads charge as UNLV pulls away for 89-76 victory
- Katin Reinhardt steps up in his debut, leading UNLV to a 74-70 victory at Carleton
- All UNLV in Canada coverage
Dave Rice is sitting in his office, and from here it’s easy to see everything that went wrong at the end of his debut season as UNLV’s basketball coach.
“It was a great lesson for me,” Rice said. “I didn’t do a good enough job down the stretch of getting us to continue to play at the same level we played at for the first 24 games. We lost our confidence on the road. We didn’t trust each other as much as we should have.”
It’s the end of September. Rice was on the road recruiting earlier in the week and he had more trips lined up, but when he’s on campus, it’s all about the players. This team, this super-hyped team, and the season it could produce if the pieces fall in place is more than enough to keep his attention.
One week from today the team has its first official practice. In two weeks, on Thursday, Oct. 18, the Rebels host the Runnin’ Rebel Scarlet/Gray Showcase, a free event for the public. It starts at 7 p.m. in the Thomas & Mack Center, and it will include a dunk contest, intrasquad scrimmage and an alumni game with some past UNLV legends. A Fan Fest on the concourse begins at 5 p.m.; doors open at 6 p.m.
For those not among the thousands who packed the Mendenhall Center over the week of practices leading up to UNLV’s trip to Canada in August, this will be their first look at the 2012-13 Rebels. Even those who saw those practices will now get their first look at freshman Anthony Bennett and junior transfer Roscoe Smith, who’s redshirting this year, in Rebel uniforms.
The event will likely fill the Mack with a rowdy crowd that already has cleared its March and, for some, April calendar. That comes with the territory for a likely top-15 team. Their focus is turning that expectation into execution, and that’s where the lessons from last season come into play.
It’s not enough to want to be a running team. Or want to defend 3-pointers. Or want to play well on the road. Last year, the Rebels wanted all of those things and eventually they failed to get them. The hype and excitement of that 21-3 start to the season felt hollow when the Rebels finished 26-9.
“I want us to be as strong in the middle of the year and at the end of the year as we are at the start,” Rice said. “That was one of my frustrations last year, was that we didn’t play our best basketball at the end. We should be peaking at the end of the year, not the opposite.”
That’s why the Rebels were on the UNLV track at 7 a.m., when on the third timed-mile out of four they would run in a month, the leader was freshman Savon Goodman (5 minutes, 30 seconds) with sophomore Khem Birch close behind (5:36). The mile isn’t some impossible distance, but it tests the mental toughness of athletes who are used to the confines of a court.
A new NCAA rule this season has allowed coaches two hours per week of on-court time with the team. Add that to the time spent together with the Canada trip and Rice has a much better feel for this team than last year at the same stage. And every moment together is spent with thoughts of getting better. Physically and mentally, in order to succeed in March, there must be progress now.
“I’ve already learned from last year the importance of having a stronger, more strenuous preseason conditioning program,” Rice said.
There have been improvements even since the Canada trip, Rice said, and the integration of Bennett, Smith and Birch into practice has been easier since the other newcomers already had their breaking-in period.
Fans will get to see for themselves in two weeks. And after that, the team will be officially off and running, heading past, it hopes, a first-game NCAA Tournament exit like last year and toward something worthy of this fanfare. Worthy of the hours and effort already logged and the many more still to come. Worthy of clearing your schedule.