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The first-year successes were nice, but Rebels coach Rice says he’s still developing

UNLV Basketball - 2012 First Practice

Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV head coach Dave Rice talks to the media after their open practice Saturday, August 4, 2012.

UNLV Basketball - 2012 First Practice

UNLV guards Katin Reinhardt and Anthony Marshall talk during their open practice Saturday, August 4, 2012. Launch slideshow »

When the UNLV basketball team opens play later this week in Canada for its four-game exhibition tour, several curious eyes will be on the players to gauge their improvements from last year.

The players, however, won’t be the only ones with noticeable upgrades to their performances.

Rebels coach Dave Rice, who went 26-9 last year during his initial season at the helm of the program, also feels like he’s progressed.

“I’m a better coach. That is just because there is no substitute for a year of experience,” Rice said. “I assume and hope I will be a better coach next year than I am this year.

“We have five returning guys in our program who played significant minutes for us last year, so they understand what we are trying to do. That helps our staff in terms of making a transition. The experience (of getting ready for Canada) has been different because it gives us such a head start for the year.”

UNLV won 21 of its first 24 games during the Rice tenure, beating top-ranked North Carolina in the signature victory and rising to No. 11 in the national rankings. Although UNLV stumbled down the stretch, especially when playing on the road, and was bounced in its first game of the NCAA Tournament, Rice’s first season was widely deemed a success.

At times, it didn’t seem like it was Rice’s first go-round as a head coach after nearly two decades of being assistant. From balancing the duties of studying the next opponent to running practices and recruiting, Rice passed his first season with flying colors.

Now, it’s on to another season in a continuation of the coach’s growth. Everyone will get a sneak peek this week.

“We are far from a finished product, and I’m far from a finished coach,” he said.

In the practices leading up to the tour, UNLV fans have packed the Mendenhall Center to watch practice, buzzing with energy at the product Rice had on the court. Sure, it’s just August, but the overwhelming support in the summer serves as a perfect indication of the success Rice had last year.

The program, in a town of no professional sports franchises, has long been Southern Nevada’s most followed team. Last year, Rice helped give the die-hards something to cheer about — one of his biggest achievements.

“It is exciting that people are looking forward to basketball season like they are,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have been a player here, so I understand the tradition of the program and all the great former players and all the great former coaches who were part of the program.

“It is my job as head coach to be a facilitator of the tradition of our program and share it with fans. It makes me feel happy when fans get excited about what we are trying to do.”

The UNLV brand in Canada

Canadian Joel Anthony developed at UNLV before reaching the NBA with the Miami Heat and winning a championship. The Rebels have a pair of high-profile Canadians on the roster in Pittsburgh transfer Khem Birch and McDonald’s All-American Anthony Bennett.

So, yes, the pipeline from Canada to UNLV is already strong. Rice plans on further spreading the UNLV brand during the tour.

“We are going to an area where we certainly had success recruiting with Khem Birch and Anthony Bennett,” Rice said. “I’ve always believed UNLV is a global name. To be able to take our Runnin’ Rebel basketball program, and to represent a great university and great community, to do that in a foreign country is an exciting time for us.”

Neither Bennett nor Birch will play in Canada — Birch isn’t eligible until after the first semester following his transfer; Bennett was not cleared in time.

Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21.

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