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Analysis: Is VCU coach Mike Rhoades a potential fit at UNLV?

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Wade Vandervort

Flames lights up the Thomas & Mack Center prior to the start of a UNLV vs UNR game Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019.

UNLV isn’t just focusing on big names and established winners in its search for a head basketball coach. According to sources, athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois is also open to a dynamic young coach with limited experience if she believes he is the right fit for the Runnin’ Rebels.

One coach who might fit the latter description is Virginia Commonwealth’s Mike Rhoades. Now in his second year at VCU, the 46-year-old led the Rams to a 25-7 record this season and a first-place finish in the Atlantic 10. His team is a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament and will face off against No. 9 UCF on Friday.

Could Rhoades, with his aggressive defense and modern offense, be the right fit to lead UNLV into the future?

Turnaround credentials

Rhoades may be a hot name on the market now, but he certainly paid his dues in rising up the coaching ranks. His first head coaching job was at Division-III Randolph-Macon, where he spent 10 years and posted a record of 197-76 (.722 winning percentage). He then accepted a position as an assistant to Shaka Smart at VCU, serving there for five years (a stint that included being on the sideline for the Rams’ Final Four run in 2010-11).

His work at VCU earned him his first D-I head coaching job when he was hired to take over a moribund Rice program in 2014. It wasn’t a favorable situation. In the nine seasons before Rhoades got there, Rice posted a 94-187 record. The two years before his arrival, the Owls went 12-49 (with a conference mark of 3-29). The program was basically dead.

The first thing Rhoades did was inject some energy with his style of play. He installed an aggressive full-court defense, as he had the Owls pressing on 19.0 percent of possessions. On offense, he spread the floor and instructed his shooters to let it fly. Nearly half of all of Rice’s shot attempts came from beyond the arc (49.3-percent 3-point rate), and the top four players in the rotation all averaged at least 4.0 deep attempts per game.

The results? A 12-20 overall record and an 8-10 showing in Conference USA — modest marks for sure, but for Rice that represented a stunning turnaround.

And Rhoades mostly did it with the same players he inherited from the previous regime. Of the top-five players in minutes during Rhoades’s first season at Rice, four were on the team the previous year, including the three leading scorers. It was the system that made the difference.

Rhoades’s third year at Rice was the big breakthrough, as he led the Owls to a 23-12 record (11-7 CUSA) and a postseason berth in the CBI. He had the team playing at a fast tempo (17th-fastest in the country, according to KenPom.com’s adjusted tempo metric), powered by his aggressive defense and quick-strike, perimeter-oriented offensive attack.

When VCU head coach Will Wade was hired by LSU, Rhoades's old team came calling. He walked into a much better situation this time around, though things weren’t perfect. VCU lost most of its key players from the previous season, and Rhoades was only able to coax an 18-15 record out of the Rams in his first year at VCU. It was the first time since 2006 that VCU did not play in a postseason tournament.

That brings us to this year, and Rhoades’s true breakthrough as a coach. Guard Marcus Evans gained eligibility (he followed Rhoades from Rice to VCU as a transfer and sat out the 2017-18 season) and Rhoades got a chance to fully unleash his press defense, and now VCU is back near the top of the mid-major world. The Rams went 25-7 overall, 16-2 in the A10 and earned a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament.

That’s a great resumé for a 46-year-old coach. Not only does he have VCU playing like an elite mid-major, but he managed to build Rice into a 20-win team within three years. Rice!

The press

This will be music to the ears of old-school Runnin’ Rebels fans: Rhoades employs one of the most aggressive defensive schemes in the country. VCU has run a full-court press on 29.5 percent of all defensive possessions this season; only nine Division-I teams have pressed more often. The Rams have held opponents to 0.706 points per possession while pressing; only six teams have been stingier. VCU has forced turnovers on 26.9 percent of possessions while pressing; only five teams sported a higher turnover rate. It’s an elite defense.

And it’s not a fluke. In his first year at VCU, Rhoades had his team pressing 30.1 percent of the time. It wasn’t quite as effective (0.844 PPP, 18.4-percent turnover rate), but when he has the players capable of pulling it off, it’s clear that Rhoades knows how to apply pressure and force opponents into making mistakes:

If Rhoades were to become the coach at UNLV, he would almost certainly rev up the press in Year 1, no matter what the roster looked like. By Years 2 and 3 he would have more of his guys recruited and then the sparks would really fly.

The flip-side of the press is Rhoades’s preferred offensive style. Because smaller, quicker players are able to press more effectively, Rhoades plays smaller lineups. In order to complement the fast pace of his defense, Rhoades emphasizes fast shots on offense. Those ingredients lead to a lot of 3-point attempts.

This season, when Marvin Menzies embraced small-ball for the first time, UNLV attempted 3-pointers on 40.2 percent of its shots. That seemed like a ton of 3-pointers to Rebels fans. But in his five years as a head coach, Rhoades’s teams have been comfortably above that mark, as 41.8 percent of shots in his offense have been 3-pointers:

That chart is a good thing. It’s how Rhoades was able to field a top-50 offense in his last year at Rice (No. 46 in KenPom’s adjusted offense rankings), so if it can work there, it can work anywhere.

It’s a wide-open system on both ends of the court, which is what makes VCU so fun to watch.

Recruiting

Rhoades does not have a long track record as a recruiter. It’s hard to judge him by his Rice tenure, because it’s Rice. His first incoming class at VCU included three high-school players, two of whom were 2-star recruits who have not contributed as freshmen this year. The other player was 3-star guard Vince Williams, who has played 15.4 minutes per game off the bench.

Both of VCU’s committed 2019 recruits are rated as 2-star prospects, so it looks like Rhoades is mining similar territory this season.

Marcus Evans has turned out to be Rhoades’s best recruit, and Rhoades has recruited him twice now. First, Rhoades got the Virginia Beach, Va., native to sign with Rice as a 2-star out of high school in 2015. Evans exploded as a freshman, averaging 21.4 points per game for the Owls as a first-year player.

When Rhoades left for VCU, Evans announced his intention to transfer. It came down to VCU, Arizona and Miami, and Rhoades won out again. Now Evans is VCU’s leader in scoring (13.9 points per game), assists (3.2) and steals (1.9).

The lack of top-end recruits is worth noting. UNLV should consistently bring in the best recruiting classes in the Mountain West, and with the right coach and on-court success, the Runnin’ Rebels should be able to compete nationally for top players. Rhoades hasn’t done that yet — it doesn’t mean he’s incapable of it, but we haven’t seen it yet. So far in his career he has been content to bring in players who fit his unique system, and that has worked for him.

Bottom line

So, is Mike Rhoades the next Chris Beard? His resumé looks similar if you squint — big-time success at the non-DI level, quick turnarounds at two schools (including Rice, which should count for double), and a signature defensive style that instantly brings an identity to any team he coaches. The comparison is obvious.

One thing Beard possessed that Rhoades lacks so far is NCAA-tournament success. Beard’s first-round win with Arkansas-Little Rock in 2016 made him such a hot name that he was ultimately able to bypass the mid-major level altogether and leave UNLV for Texas Tech. Rhoades is still within UNLV’s reach in that regard.

Rhoades is currently making $1.2 million per year at VCU, and his contract runs through the 2022-23 season. To leave for another job he would have to pay a buyout of $1 million. According to sources, UNLV could have between $1.7 to $2.8 million to spend on its next coach, so the money seems to line up.

The biggest concern with Rhoades potentially taking over the Runnin’ Rebels is his ability to recruit. Is his pressing style so idiosyncratic that he prefers less-talented “system players” over supremely gifted 5-star types? Or can his lack of top-shelf recruiting simply be blamed on the futility of trying to persuade 17-year-olds to come to Rice or (to a lesser extent) VCU?

If Rhoades can utilize UNLV’s recruiting advantage and consistently draw 3-star, 4-star and some 5-star talent to Las Vegas — while still running his frenzied full-court defense — it could produce an exciting, fan-friendly brand of basketball. And judging by his early results at Rice and VCU, it wouldn’t take long for him to make UNLV relevant in the Mountain West again.

If Reed-Francois really is open to hiring a “rising star” as the next coach, Rhoades would have to be near the top of the list.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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