Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, March 22, 2013 | 8:30 a.m.
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Dave Rice calls it the proliferation of the NCAA Tournament, and it’s about to make this a difficult offseason. That’s because his 51 victories and dozens of stars accrued in recruiting rankings don’t carry nearly as much weight as his 0-2 record in the only games most fans really care about.
He’ll tell you progress has been made (see below) but patience has a way of evaporating after these type of performances. UNLV was outscored 19-3 before Rice’s timeouts early in each half, and the 64-61 loss to Cal could have been far worse. It could have been better, too, considering how many close shots and free throws UNLV missed, but it was much closer to being a Golden Bears blowout than a Rebels win.
Two games are a small sample size. However, until the Rebels’ five-game NCAA losing streak is broken, every positive piece of UNLV news with be met with, “Yeah, but they can’t win when it matters.”
Golden Bears coach Mike Montgomery has been a head coach in college since 1977, minus a three-year stint with the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and one year out of the profession. So he knows what he’s doing.
Against UNLV, Montgomery’s plan was to switch up his defense, going man after makes and zone after misses, when it’s harder to scramble back and pick up your man. Two things then happened to make Cal basically play zone the entire game.
First, the Rebels played right into Cal’s hands by shooting over the top of the zone frequently throughout the game. Montgomery couldn’t have drawn up a better game play-by-play. Four of UNLV’s first five shot attempts were 3-pointers, and making two of them may have actually helped Cal in the long run as it gave the Rebels confidence to keep chucking.
And secondly, Cal didn’t even have to consider man for more than half the second half because UNLV went 11:32 without making a shot.
“The zone bothered them,” Montgomery said.
Rebels’ lackluster debuts
Five Rebels played in their first NCAA Tournament game Thursday, and only Khem Birch (six rebounds, five points, four blocks) had a solid debut. And he only played six minutes in the second half because of a coach’s decision.
Anthony Bennett did finish with a double-double, but he was rarely assertive on offense and he was one of a few Rebels who sounded out of touch after the game.
Bennett: “We came out hard. Things weren’t falling for us.”
Katin Reinhardt: “We just didn’t make shots.”
Bryce Dejean-Jones: “We were missing some easy shots we usually make.”
Those lines ring as hollow as they did after UNLV’s loss at Fresno State in February. Yes, UNLV did miss some easy looks. For example, freshman Savon Goodman had a chance to end UNLV’s field goal-less drought before it got to 11:32 but his dunk attempt went flying off the rim. But as detailed above, Cal made the Rebels uncomfortable.
“I just don’t think they probably liked it that much,” Montgomery said.
Anthony Marshall was one of the few players I spoke with who admitted UNLV wasn’t doing exactly what it wanted in its zone offense (something I’m guessing the game film makes very clear).
Marshall said he felt the various ball screens UNLV was using in the first half were getting some results.
“That allowed us guards, the perimeter players, to get into the middle of the key and that gave us options,” he said. “Shoot it, dump it down to the post player or kick out to the other shooters.”
The Rebels stopped doing that in the second half, he said, instead settling for passing the ball around the perimeter with a four out, one in scheme that left UNLV without rebounders the few times they did put up a shot in the post.
Simply put, UNLV didn’t look like it knew what to do against Cal’s zone, a defensive scheme the Golden Bears weren’t even completely committed to until they saw how well it was working.
The last word
It’s not like I won’t write more about this game, but most of the stuff now is going to be much more forward looking. So with that in mind, I’m yielding this space to Rice’s final comments before he walked back into the locker room and shut the door on the 2012-13 season. He was asked what it’s going to take to get over the hump in the tournament:
It starts tomorrow and it starts in the spring and the summer and the fall. Games like today are won in April and May and June and not just won in March. It’s a total commitment from every player and every coach in the program. Just a total commitment to do absolutely everything, to do things that are for the team; hard work, it’s all part of the equation, and that’s why it’s so hard to win games. That’s why 68 teams get into the NCAA Tournament and 280 or 290, whatever the number is, don’t, because it’s something that’s extremely hard to do. I’m extremely proud of our seniors and their contributions, and we’ve got a lot of work to do. I’ve said it from Day One of this season, we’ve got a long way to go. We’re moving in the right direction. People think that it’s coach-speak, and it’s not. We have a long way to go. This program went 15 years and went to two NCAA Tournaments, and now we’ve been four years in a row and six out of seven and we are by no means satisfied at all ending the season like this. But it’s a process and we’re going to solve the equation and we’re going to figure it out and we’re going to do it through hard work and camaraderie, because that’s the only way you can do it.