At UNLV, expectations are very high. They might not be “Final Four or bust,” but this is a program that has a national championship in its history and a lot of things going for it. The expectation is that the Runnin’ Rebels are a consistent postseason, if not NCAA Tournament, team. When that’s not met, the end can come, even for someone who is a cherished part of the program’s history.
Dave Rice, line one.
With UNLV starting Mountain West play 0-3, one of the real surprises in the early going, the school fired Rice on Sunday. The 47-year-old coach, who was part of the 1990 national champions, was in his fifth season at the school. The school has been a big part of his life since he was a teenager, as he played there while earning his bachelors degree, then earned his master’s of business administration two years after that and was an assistant coach for 11 seasons. This was his first head coaching job.
Rice had instant success, with the Runnin’ Rebels winning 26 games in his first season at the helm. That set a record for a first-year head coach in the program’s history. They won 25 more the next season, which included a No. 5 seed – the highest tournament seed a UNLV team has had since the one right after the national championship season, when they lost to Duke in the national semifinals in a game that felt like a title contest.
After that, however, the wins were harder to come by. They won 20 games again, but 20 wins isn’t what it used to be, and in this case it didn’t translate into any postseason appearance. Last season was more of the same, an 18-15 season that included an 8-10 mark in Mountain West play. That brings us to this season’s 0-3 start, all by three points or less, and coming after a relatively non-descript non-conference showing. They beat Indiana in the Maui Invitational, and later beat Oregon, but they lost to UCLA (in Maui), Wichita State (road), Arizona State (home) and Arizona (road).
The program expects better than the sliding fortunes of the past couple of years and thus far this season. Consider that they are still producing NBA players, from Anthony Bennett (No. 1 overall pick in 2013) to Rashad Vaughn and Christian Wood, who were drafted in the first and second round, respectively, in 2015. This year’s roster has big-time talents in freshman Derrick Jones and Stephen Zimmerman, along with a very good one in Dwayne Morgan, who isn’t having a banner year. They also had Goodluck Okonoboh, but he transferred, which hasn’t helped. With that kind of talent, winning is expected, especially when San Diego State, a team that has recently been the signature program of the conference, appears to be down.
Rice could have left in 2014, as South Florida offered him the head coaching job. He opted to stay and sign a two-year extension. The merits of it can be debated; one’s alma mater is always a strong draw for someone, especially when it’s been as big a part of one’s life as it has been for Dave Rice.
Todd Simon, who has been a big part of the school’s ability to recruit players from prep power Findlay Prep, which is nearby, will take over on an interim basis. The Mountain West appears wide open this season, so a recovery from an 0-3 start is not out of the question. Looking beyond this season, the Runnin’ Rebels once again have good talent ready to come through the door, as four player signed national letters of intent in November, including two widely rated as top 100 prospects. Considering Simon is a key part of the program’s recruiting efforts, whether or not he gets the job permanently may have a big impact on whether or not any of those four make it to campus next fall.
Dave Rice is like many coaches who have had success at first, but couldn’t quite sustain it. In his case, he did it at a school where the expectations are a little higher than many other places. That has a lot to do with why he’s the first coaching casualty of this season.
Another team with an 0-3 start in conference play that likely isn’t going over too well is NC State, who dropped to that mark after Wake Forest beat them 77-74 in Winston-Salem. The more surprising result to many will be Clemson beating Louisville 66-62 behind a near double-double from Jaron Blossomgame (17 points, nine rebounds). That comes after the Tigers won in Syracuse earlier in the week.
Big Ten play featured a couple of surprises as Illinois beat Purdue 84-70 for their first conference win, led by 30 points from Malcolm Hill, while Indiana blasted Ohio State 85-60 after running out to a 48-18 halftime lead. That the Hoosiers won is not as surprising as the margin, as the Hoosiers have won nine straight and are quietly off to a 4-0 start in Big Ten play. The Buckeyes’ effort was enough to get former star Jared Sullinger to sound off on Twitter, at one point saying, “Hope the Buckeyes lose by 50. So they can see feel and experience how embarrassing this effort looks.”
Also in the Big Ten, Michigan State got Denzel Valentine back, and he helped the Spartans roll over Penn State 92-65.
Perhaps the best game of the day was in the Big East, with Villanova using a big second half to beat Butler 60-55 and improve to 4-0 in the Big East. The Wildcats continue their strong play after a non-conference run that wasn’t very impressive. How good is the Big East? Butler is now 1-3 in the early going.
SMU remained undefeated with an 88-73 win over UCF as Ben Moore (23 points) and Nic Moore (20 points) led four Mustangs who scored in double figures. But the bigger news was that Larry Brown was not on the bench with the team for the second half due to symptoms of vertigo. Brown has had similar issues in the past, but is expected to be well enough to continue with some rest.
Arizona got some bad news on Sunday, in case their 1-2 start in Pac-12 play isn’t bad enough. Allonzo Trier, their most talented freshman and leading scorer, broke his hand in the loss on Saturday night and is expected to be out 4-6 weeks. He played a good deal of the game with it, though it was clear he was hurt.
With college football’s national championship game taking center stage, the hoops slate is light and also lacks the kind of matchups we saw last Monday. A couple of games highlight the slate, which is heavy on MEAC, SWAC and Southern Conference action.
- Southern Conference powers meet as Chattanooga travels to Wofford.
- A nice Patriot League matchup is on tap as Lehigh hosts Bucknell.