Thursday, March 3, 2016 | 2 a.m.
UNLV’s 2015-16 season will go down as an unbelievable year, mostly for the wrong reasons.
As the Rebels (17-13, 8-9) prepare for Saturday’s regular-season finale at San Diego State (22-8, 15-2) they also deal with the latest distraction and/or setback, and like many before this one leaves them with one less player available. Freshman forward Derrick Jones Jr. might have played his last game in a UNLV uniform after the NCAA ruled him ineligible, but after a tumultuous year like this one, there could be a lot of players and coaches wearing different colors in a few weeks.
This season has had some highs, plenty of lows, a few self-made problems and enough bad luck to make you fear asking, What next? Here’s a look at some of the twists and turns that put UNLV on track for its second straight sub-20-win season before what could be (but might not necessarily be) a complete overhaul this offseason:
Oct. 13 — Rebels picked to finish fourth in Mountain West
Bishop Gorman High grad Stephen Zimmerman Jr. became the fourth straight Rebel to get picked as the Mountain West’s Preseason Freshman of the Year. Also, the league’s media, citing mostly a lack of confidence based on recent underperforming seasons, pegged the Rebels to finish fourth.
UNLV assistant Stacey Augmon responded by tweeting, “Trust me this is a joke,” which further backed up the confidence UNLV had been oozing all offseason. The pieces were together to play the style coach Dave Rice had always said he wanted, and the season of And Now and #TrustTheProcess started with the Rebels very much believing they would be the league’s best team and more. The preseason event downtown
Nov. 3 — UNLV announces suspension for Daquan Cook
The redshirt junior guard was arrested on Nov. 1 on a count of driving under the influence. Rice announced that Cook would be suspended for at least the nonconference season (13 games), a punishment that may have been extra severe because of previous violations of team rules.
“Very disappointed in Daquan but also disappointed for Daquan," Rice said. "He’s worked extremely hard and put himself in a position to be ready to play and made a serious mistake. He understands there’s a responsibility when you put a UNLV uniform on and he failed in that regard.”
Cook was reinstated on Dec. 29, although he would play only four more minutes as a Rebel before eventually being dismissed from the team on Feb. 5. UNLV provided no real reason as to why Cook remained on the team after his arrest only to be left back from road trips before eventually dismissed, but the Rebels might have been trying to make sure they didn’t incur an APR hit for a player not completing classes.
Nov. 25 — Rebels leave Maui Invitational with victory against No. 13 Indiana
There was a joke going around that whichever team lost the game would leave its coach on the island. In a twist, the team that won wound up getting rid of its coach a little more than a month later, while Tom Crean improved his defense and led the Hoosiers to an outright Big Ten title.
The big victory capped a strange trip for the Rebels. They battled illness — Zimmerman didn’t play against Chaminade — and started to show some cracks when, after the Chaminade victory, Rice responded to an unrelated question with a tangent that left many in the room feeling the pressure of his job security was showing.
“Our guys are playing with a tremendous amount of pressure,” Rice said, as a few UNLV officials, including President Len Jessup and Athletic Director Tina Kunzer-Murphy, were standing in the back of the room. “My job as a coach is to make the game fun. Basketball's supposed to be fun. When you play in Las Vegas, it's a privilege to put that UNLV uniform on. There is great tradition. But I don't want our guys to have the weight of the world on our shoulders. That's my job, that's the coaches' job.”
Nov. 27 — Sophomore forward Goodluck Okonoboh leaves the program
After reportedly asking to be removed from the starting lineup, Okonoboh asked to leave the program shortly after the team returned from the Maui Invitational. And there were reports that Okonoboh, whose role decreased quite a bit from his freshman season, even tried to leave the island early.
Okonoboh was expected to transfer to another program but he has not apparently enrolled anywhere. The initial reaction was mostly people either decrying another player leaving the program early or saying good riddance to a player who, they figured, the Rebels wouldn’t miss because of all of their depth. Of course, injuries do happen.
Dec. 30 — Rebels drop Mountain West opener at home to Fresno State
The Rebels’ nonconference season peaked with a Dec. 4 victory against No. 15 Oregon, which on Wednesday clinched the Pac-12 regular-season title. But then an ugly second half against Arizona State led to a 10-point home loss and Zimmerman got injured in a 12-point loss at No. 13 Arizona.
The slate was clean to start league play but the Bulldogs came in and were the better team, although the Rebels had a chance. They just failed to capitalize on their foul advantage and Zimmerman gave up a key offensive rebound for Fresno State’s go-ahead points in the final 30 seconds.
It was one of many close losses the Rebels had suffered in recent years, and two more blown leads would prove to be too much for UNLV’s administration to allow.
Halfway through Rice’s fifth season, and 10 months after nearly pulling the trigger before telling him he had another year, Kunzer-Murphy fired Rice, terming it a mutual decision to resign.
Rice finished his UNLV career 98-54 overall and 37-32 in league play, though he was only 27-22 and 8-13 since agreeing to a new contract through the 2018-19 season. Rice will continue to receive the remainder of his base salary (around $1 million) from UNLV whether or not he takes another job.
In the offseason, UNLV agreed to change the title for all three regular assistant coaches to associate head coach, which further muddied things as the decision to name Simon the interim caused all kinds of inner-program turmoil that’s still spilling out today. Augmon wanted the job and has spent the months since then campaigning both publicly and privately to be named UNLV’s next full-time coach, and possibly threatening action if he’s not.
One of UNLV’s all-time best players, Augmon has fan and alumni support, and many felt that since he was the longest-tenured assistant he should’ve gotten the job. Of course, they each had a case: Simon is paid as the top assistant and originally held the accompanying title, Ryan Miller has the most college coaching experience of the group and special assistant to the head coach Max Good could’ve been a candidate, too, as he actually had previous experience as a UNLV interim.
The bottom line is that there were certainly multiple motivations for choosing Simon, a longtime Findlay Prep coach, to try to right the ship for the rest of the season. And instead of handling this perceived disrespect in private, Augmon has made sure that UNLV’s inner drama plays out in public.
It was an innocuous play but it ultimately put UNLV on full tilt. Carter went up for a rebound and landed awkwardly near an Aztec, a fluke play that blew out his knee and sent arguably the most important person on UNLV’s roster into a second straight rehab-filled offseason.
The junior forward showed no signs of offseason back surgery this year while leading the Rebels with modest numbers (8.6 points, 6 rebounds) that betray his full impact on the team. Carter contributed in nearly every category and could regularly be counted on as an emotional leader and to take a charge or two.
During Simon’s five games with a full roster, the Rebels went 4-1 while averaging 83.2 points per game. It would’ve been interesting to see what UNLV could have done, though there are no guarantees that it would be much different than today.
Feb. 6 — Zimmerman injured in loss at Fresno State
Zimmerman got into a tie-up with Bulldogs big man Terrell Carter, and by the end of it the Rebel freshman was on the ground with a sprained knee that would keep him out the next five games. UNLV erased a 17-point deficit before ultimately losing the game in double overtime, which dropped their record to 13-11 overall and 4-7 for eighth place in the league.
The Rebels figured their depth would be a strength this season, but between Okonoboh’s transfer, Carter’s injury, nagging injuries that led to UNLV shutting down junior Tyrell Green and then this, it became one of their biggest concerns.
There was also personal tragedy for senior guard Ike Nwamu, whose former Mercer teammate and friend Jabri Bryan was slain in Georgia. This was the first game that Nwamu switched his number from No. 0 to No. 34 to honor Bryan.
Feb. 20 — Dwayne Morgan injured in practice; UNLV defeats UNR
A few days after a lackluster performance ended in another loss at Air Force, UNLV’s depth took another hit when Morgan suffered a separated shoulder in morning shootaround. The sophomore forward got hurt going up for a rebound on what Simon called a routine play.
The Rebels are hopeful they can get Morgan back at least for next week’s conference tournament, though against the Wolf Pack they pulled off a miracle finish and showed that the extremely short-handed roster could win in the Mack.
Feb. 23 — Player apartment robbed while Rebels on road at Boise State
Three players and a student manager — Zimmerman, Carter, Jones and manager Derek Malloy — live together in an apartment that was robbed at some point while the Rebels were on the road at Boise State. Simon said that Carter, who has been staying at his parents’ house, was at the apartment in the afternoon and the other three called Metro when they returned from the chartered trip around 2 a.m.
Among the many personal items stolen was Zimmerman’s McDonald’s All-American ring, and crime-scene analysts were brought in to investigate anything that may have been left behind.
There was also a unique scene on Feb. 27 at Senior Night in the Mack, where Rice sat with his family just a few rows behind UNLV's bench. Rarely is a college basketball coach fired mid-season, and likely never has he then attended one of his former team's home games, but Rice was there to show support for his players.
Feb. 29 — NCAA rules Jones ineligible
After looking into Jones’ lone ACT score for about nine months, the NCAA decided that now was the time to cancel Jones’ score and force him out of both games and practice as a nonqualifier. UNLV announced it Wednesday after the Sun broke the story.
The issue relates to several questionable scores being flagged from the same Baltimore-area testing site from the same day, but unlike the other six to eight prospective athletes involved, Jones was originally ruled eligible. The timing of the decision is interesting, to say the least, and it leaves UNLV with likely six scholarship players to dress for Saturday’s game at San Diego State.
UNLV has lost seven straight against the Aztecs, and a victory in this one could be a small consolation at the end of a disappointing season. But Jones’ absence makes that even more difficult, and the Rebels have to hope that senior Jerome Seagears can continue to battle through the injuries that threaten to sideline him on any given play.
If this season has taught the Rebels anything it’s never say it can’t get worse. Instead, just add it to the list and do what you can to persevere.