Analysis:

Bern’s-Eye View: This season the right time for Rebels to pick up the pace

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Steve Marcus

Head Coach Dave Rice, center, calls out to players during the first UNLV basketball practice of the season at UNLV’s Mendenhall Center Monday, Oct. 7, 2013.

UNLV Rebels First Basketball Practice of the Season

Bryce Dejean-Jones drives by Kevin Olekaibe during the first UNLV basketball practice of the season at UNLV's Mendenhall Center Monday, Oct. 7, 2013. Launch slideshow »

On his first day as UNLV’s coach, Dave Rice made his intentions clear.

“Winning is No. 1, I get that — but style of play is going to be 1a," he said in 2011. "We're going to get out and run — we're the Runnin' Rebels. Everything will be up-tempo.”

More than two years later, the Rebels are still running after that goal.

“I want our guys to feel how much better shape they need to be in to play Runnin’ Rebel basketball,” Rice said after Monday’s first practice.

Rice’s two teams have picked up the pace and led the league both seasons in adjusted tempo, according to kenpom.com. But those teams never followed through on the style. Rice didn’t run very much full-court pressure because, despite having some very athletic players, the personnel wasn’t right for it.

This dichotomy was also apparent on the many possessions Rice would wave his arm from the sideline trying to urge the offense to speed up only to watch his guards jog up the court. However, perception has been greater than reality, at least on the recruiting trail.

While UNLV hasn’t entirely lived up to that “up-tempo” billing, nearly every recruit I’ve talked to over the past two years has mentioned UNLV’s style as a positive. I want to get out and run, the kids say, and that’s the way they play.

“They like to get it down the floor,” said 2014 commit Dwayne Morgan.

That was after a home victory against New Mexico in which neither team broke 65 points — UNLV won 64-55 — though it did contain a surprisingly high number of possessions (72), so maybe Morgan was keeping count.

UNLV’s inability to completely achieve its desired pace hasn’t been a hindrance in recruiting future Rebels, and now that Rice has a roster that’s almost entirely his own, they may finally be able to follow through. Practices certainly are different, with players picking up in a full-court press after every made basket and out-of-bounds play.

“We want that to be part of our identity,” Rice said. “We want to make teams use the entire floor. We feel like we have the depth and the personnel to do that.”

UNLV doesn’t want to go to the extremes of Grinnell’s offense (shoot within 10 seconds) or VCU’s Havoc defense (relentless trapping). In fact, Rice said, the Rebels’ press wouldn’t always include trapping. Instead they will focus on man pressure that should force opponents into mistakes without the high risk of getting beat for easy baskets that comes with constantly trapping.

And on offense the Rebels at least sound committed to grabbing the rebound and pushing it up the court better than they have recently.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, we really want to play at a 12,” junior Roscoe Smith said. “We want to play as fast as possible. … I’m over-exaggerating but we want to have 100 points in the first half.”

Last year the Rebels’ adjusted tempo — possessions per game against an average defense — was 68.8, which ranked 51st in the country. That was down from Rice’s first season, when the Rebels averaged 70 per game and ranked 29th.

Reversing that trend is a top priority. If not No. 1, then certainly 1a.

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

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