Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Las Vegas Sun sports writers Ray Brewer, Case Keefer and Taylor Bern use UNLV's opening basketball practice as an excuse to push the 1-5 football team to the end of the show.
Dave Rice is trying to build an identity, and with a UNLV lineup replacing all five starters and the majority of its production that’s no small task.
Talent — the buzzword most often attached to Rice’s previous two Rebels teams — seems to be in abundance once again. The Rebels held their first official practice Monday for the 2014-15 season, and dotting the two courts in the Mendenhall Center were the guys who formed arguably the best recruiting class in program history.
There’s Rashad Vaughn, Dwayne Morgan and Goodluck Okonoboh, all top-50 freshmen and probable starters. Jordan Cornish and Pat McCaw will factor into the rotation, and senior transfer Cody Doolin is looked at by many as the most important factor at point guard.
“He’s the piece we need for this team,” Vaughn said.
Doolin could be huge, both for the way he seems capable of setting up teammates for success on the offensive end and the experience he adds to an inexperienced lineup. Returning Rebels Christian Wood, Kendall Smith and Jelan Kendrick have a combined 23 starts at UNLV compared to Doolin’s 103 career starts at San Francisco.
And while fellow transfers Ben Carter and Jerome Seagears can offer advice in practice, they’re both redshirting this season. Doolin’s the only one who will have a chance to pass on his knowledge on the court, and from his leadership position Doolin is expected to spearhead Rice’s efforts to instill two ideas above all else to this year’s team.
“Play hard on every possession and stay together on every possession,” Rice said. “Everything else will take care of itself.”
Never read too much into one practice, especially the first one, but those were the things Rice barked at the players during the workout, too. Big mistakes are fine if they’re made with effort, and considering this youthful team is going to make a plethora of errors no matter what Rice says it’s probably a good idea to emphasize effort over execution at this stage.
“As long as you make mistakes with great effort you can’t complain about that,” Okonoboh said.
Part of instilling that idea is holding players accountable, something Rice hasn’t always done. The program’s progress will depend largely not just on the new pieces gelling with the old but also Rice developing as a coach and backing up his words with action.
As for staying together, Rice described that as a lot of talking, picking each other up and playing as a unit. It’s the intangibles and the little plays that seem so easy to make this time of year and then their importance generally diminishes as the season wears on.
Much like effort, only if there’s action for failing to buy into Rice’s tenets will they have a chance to take hold. That’s on more than just the revamped coaching staff, which this year adds Ryan Miller and special assistant Max Good.
The players eventually have to take ownership of those ideals to navigate their way through a very difficult nonconference schedule, an uncertain Mountain West slate and, they hope, back to the NCAA Tournament. No matter how talented they are it’s going to be a difficult transition to this level. Good thing they have a guy at arguably the most important position who comes armed with some experience and Rice’s ideals already in mind.
“The thing that’s tough for most kids to understand about college basketball is that a lot of games are won on little things like charges, diving on the floor for loose balls, making the extra pass,” Doolin said. “… If you pair that with obviously the level of athleticism we have and probably the amount of talent we have, it could be a good year for us.”