Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017 | 2 a.m.
When UNLV goes up against UNR tonight, much will be made about current Wolf Pack assistant Dave Rice facing his former team for the first time. Rice was a Runnin’ Rebel lifer, from his playing days under Jerry Tarkanian (including a national championship win in 1990) to his four-plus seasons at the helm of his alma mater. But the truth of the matter is, this UNLV team bears almost no resemblance to the squad Rice left behind, and it’s almost entirely different than the team Rice would have fielded if he were still the head coach at UNLV.
At the time Rice was fired last January in the middle of the 2015-16 season, the 2016-17 campaign was already looming as another transition season for UNLV. A bunch of highly productive Rebels were set to leave the program at the end of 15-16, and the hope was that a large, talented incoming class would be able to rejuvenate the program. The Rebels had a highly rated recruiting class in hand, with four high school prospects committed at the time of Rice’s firing and more possibly on the way, so it’s intriguing to wonder what the team would have looked like if Rice had been given another year to steer the ship.
So in the spirit of great “What if?” sports debates, let’s take a look at what the 2016-17 Rebels could have been if Dave Rice had not been fired and he and his staff were still in place at UNLV.
2016-17 UNLV Roster Reconstruction
Out: Patrick McCaw, Stephen Zimmerman, Derrick Jones, Chris Obekpa, Ike Nwamu, Jerome Seagears
Seagears and Nwamu graduated, while McCaw, Zimmerman, Jones and Obekpa left early for the pros. I don’t think the status of this group changes much if Rice had stayed on — McCaw was ready for the NBA and was leaving either way, Zimmerman was committed to being a one-and-done even before he arrived on campus, Jones’ hand was forced by the NCAA and Obekpa didn’t seem all that interested in staying in college for a fifth year. Even if Rice remained, he wouldn’t have been coaching these players.
In: Jaylen Fisher, Justin Jackson, Carlos Johnson, Christian Vital, Kobi Simmons, Rawle Alkins, Uche Ofoegbu
For those who argued to stick with Rice, this recruiting class was one of the main plusses in his favor. It’s a super-talented group, with four top-60 prospects and some intriguing depth to round it out.
Fisher, Jackson, Johnson and Vital were already committed, giving UNLV a top-10 caliber class, and some within the program believed Simmons and Alkins — both ranked in the top 20 for 2016 — were set to join the Rebels as a package deal. When Rice was fired and his staff not retained, the recruits scattered. Fisher followed Ryan Miller to TCU, Jackson went to Maryland, Johnson went to Washington, Vital went to UConn, and the Simmons/Alkins package went to Arizona.
So far, all of those guys have panned out as freshmen. Fisher looks like a terrific defensive-minded point guard, Jackson is a jack-of-all-trades swingman for a good Maryland team, Simmons and Alkins are playing key roles for a Final Four contender, Vital is playing starter’s minutes at UConn and Johnson is a tough rotation contributor at Washington. All look like keepers.
I’m also putting Uche Ofoegbu in this group, because the previous staff liked his game and could have potentially recruited him as a grad transfer just as Marvin Menzies did, even though this hypothetical team has plenty of bodies at the guard positions.
Returning: Ben Carter, Dwayne Morgan, Jalen Poyser, Jordan Cornish, Tyrell Green
Carter and Morgan both suffered season-ending injuries in real life, but there’s no telling how their situations would have played out in this imaginary scenario. If healthy, they form a tough (if undersized) frontcourt, while Cornish and Poyser would have provided great depth and experience on the wings. Green would have been a frontcourt reserve capable of stretching the floor for longer stretches when needed. Maybe most important, there are some strong leaders in this group.
Projected 2016-17 rotation:
(with current 2016-17 statistics)
PG – Jaylen Fisher (27.7 mins, 9.1 points, 39.2 FG%, 34.4 3FG%, 4.4 assists, 1.2 steals)
SG – Uche Ofoegbu (25.0 mins, 7.3 points, 39.2 FG%, 36.2 3FG%, 1.3 steals)
SF – Justin Jackson (27.0 mins, 11.3 points, 47.9 FG%, 46.4 3FG%, 6.2 rebs
PF – Dwayne Morgan (21.4 mins, 8.3 points, 40.0 FG%, 6.6 rebs, 1.2 blocks)
C – Ben Carter (Has not played due to injury)
G/F – Rawle Alkins (29.5 mins, 11.8 points, 43.4 FG%, 35.6 3FG%, 5.4 rebs)
G – Jalen Poyser (28.8 mins, 12.0 points, 35.8 FG%, 31.3 3FG%, 3.0 assists)
G – Kobi Simmons (29.5 mins, 11.3 points, 41.6 FG%, 32.9 3FG%, 2.5 assists)
F – Jordan Cornish (Has not played due to transfer redshirt)
F – Tyrell Green (25.8 mins, 11.5 points, 40.9 FG%, 35.5 3FG%, 5.3 rebs)
G – Christian Vital (26.8 mins, 8.1 points, 36.7 FG%, 33.3 3FG%, 1.7 assists)
G/F – Carlos Johnson (14.8 mins, 5.0 points, 40.7 FG%, 2.6 rebs)
Outlook: This team is short on true big men, so Rice and his staff probably would have brought in another sizable body, either from the transfer pool or from the prep ranks — in my fictional scenario, there is one open scholarship for 2016-17. But as is, Carter, Morgan and Green are workable in the frontcourt, and Jackson is leading a solid Maryland team in rebounding, so the Rebels probably would have been good enough up front to do battle with Mountain West teams.
It’s not a good shooting team, as only Jackson is making more than 36 percent of his 3-pointers, but it’s a deep, athletic squad with plenty of upside. Fisher and Jackson look like stellar defensive players, and with Morgan and Carter both capable defenders in the frontcourt, this UNLV squad could have locked up opponents on a regular basis.
On paper, this looks like the second-best roster in the Mountain West for 2016-17, with the potential to improve throughout the season and challenge UNR for the league championship. Whether it would have played out that way is another story, as Rice's teams didn’t generally get better in-season, but on pure talent alone this looks like a 20-win team for 16-17 and an NCAA tournament lock for 17-18.
Would fans have been content to sit through another rebuilding year — albeit one with incredible upside — in order to get back to the 2018 tourney? Patience is a tough ask, especially after missing the dance three years in a row. The reward could have been huge, as Jackson looks like a budding star and the other freshmen would have likely developed into an excellent foundation for future UNLV squads, but the decision makers didn’t want to wait any longer.
Was pulling the plug on Rice the right call? Marvin Menzies appears to be doing a good job of rebuilding a program that was left barren after the 2016 recruits walked away, so it will be at least a few years before we have a real answer. For now, we’ll just have to wonder what the “What if” Rebels could have been.