Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, March 16, 2012 | 3 a.m.
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ALBUQUERQUE — Dave Rice sat down at the podium, his first season as UNLV’s head coach suddenly complete.
The fanfare and criticism, successes and failures all in the past tense in regards to the 2011-12 team. A hard-charging rally couldn’t salvage UNLV from a 68-64 upset to 11-seed Colorado, as the Rebels lost in their first NCAA Tournament game for the third consecutive season.
The Rebels (26-9) will lose four seniors, and Rice mentioned the melancholy that comes with saying goodbye. Yet less than 45 seconds into his postgame statement, and less than 30 minutes after the season came to a screeching halt Rice was looking to the future.
“While this was a very rewarding season, we’re proud of a lot of the things that we accomplished, we didn’t ever feel like we were satisfied with how it went,” Rice said.
In order to make the necessary improvements next year, here are five things that the Rebels must work on this off-season.
The Rebels got dominated on the glass several times this season, most notably in losses at TCU, the last two to New Mexico and on Thursday.
The problems against Colorado started immediately as the Buffaloes came up with seemingly every loose ball.
“We were switching a lot of screens, ended up making mismatches on the boards and guys just couldn’t box the bigs out,” said sophomore forward Mike Moser, who finished with a team-high nine rebounds.
Colorado’s Andre Roberson pulled down 16 rebounds as the Buffs finished with a 46-33 advantage on the glass. The Lobos outrebounded the Rebels by 15 in the Mountain West tournament semifinal last Friday.
“The last two games of the season we’ve been out-rebounded pretty significantly, and that’s a big problem for us especially since we want to get out in transition and run,” Rice said.
Many will criticize UNLV’s shot selection, especially early, as it finished with a season-high 36 3-point attempts. Rice was OK with that because those were the open shots, and you can’t always control whether the shots are falling.
“But we can control whether we defensive rebound the ball or not, and we just did not do a good enough job,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure that we do a better job on the defensive boards. It’s just so critically important for us to become a more consistent defensive rebounding team.”
Full-court pressure was the key to UNLV’s run, but another important factor was the Rebels getting into the lane.
“Didn’t get to the rim in the first half, but that opened things up in the second half. Triggered our offense,” junior guard Anthony Marshall said.
On Thursday it mostly came from the guards’ penetration. Next year, Rice wants to be able to dump the ball down into the post more often with more consistent success.
“We need to make sure that we continue to establish a low-post/mid-post presence, and it doesn’t have to be a 5 man. It can be a wing,” Rice said.
Establishing that presence will be key to both the post offense and rebounding, so long as the Rebels find an answer.
Taking home on the road
UNLV went 20-1 in Las Vegas, and 6-8 everywhere else. It hasn’t won a game outside of Vegas since January, a stretch that could be attributable to travel, tough road environments or an inability to overcome adverse conditions.
The problem probably includes all of the above, which means it may take the entire off-season to come up with the answer.
“Took the next step this year in terms of establishing our program, and now we need to take the next step to becoming a more consistent program at home, but also on neutral floors and on the road,” Rice said. “That’s the next step for us, to try to play the same way on the road as we do at home.”
Sense of urgency
Colorado had it. UNLV didn’t, just the latest example of the Rebels letting the moment pass them by without playing a full 40 minutes.
The players left everything they had on the court Thursday, but they waited far too long to start doing it. Sitting in his locker after playing his final game as a Rebel, fifth-year senior Kendall Wallace said his message to returning players was to always feel that urgency.
“Take every moment and relish it, because it goes by really quick,” Wallace said. “You only get so many opportunities to do this, so take advantage of it while you can.”
Finish the season
Late-season collapses are the same-old story now for Rebels fans. Rice could see it in his players.
“We’re a group this year that had a lot of success, and then at some point about 2/3 of the way through the season had a very hard time managing our success,” Rice said.
Part of that comes with the experience, because every situation is easier to handle if you’ve been there before. But more importantly it’s going to require a mental toughness from the players and a reassessment from Rice on just how everything spiraled away from them.
“That’s something we’ll have to work very hard on in the off-season,” Rice said.
They won’t be short on projects this summer.