- Eamonn Brennan, College Basketball Reporter
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Our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: UNLV.
Few coaches hold as much sway over their old programs as former UNLV icon Jerry Tarkanian. It's difficult for an outsider to understand just how much soft power Tark has wielded in the days since he left the bench in 1992, but the HBO documentary film "The Runnin' Rebels of UNLV" helped hammer it home this spring. Tark the Shark built the Rebels into a national brand, gave the city of Las Vegas the nearest possible thing to a pro basketball team, and created a sense of communal identity that made him as locally beloved as he was nationally controversial.
So when Lon Kruger left the Rebels to take on the difficult job at Oklahoma and it was time to select a coach to replace him, Tarkanian made clear who his preference was: former late 70s star Reggie Theus. He was part of the UNLV family, had pro coaching experience, and now it was time to bring him home and let him usher in a new era of Rebel greatness.
Only one problem: It wasn't clear Theus was the best candidate for the job. So UNLV athletic director Jim Livengood made a rather brilliant compromise: He hired Dave Rice instead.
Rice, unlike Theus, is a longtime college assistant with experience at UNLV, Utah State and BYU. He knows the ins and outs of basketball in the West. He's recruited for the Rebels and their immediate competitors. He wants his teams to play with the style and pressure of Tarkanian's legendary squads. And, best of all, as a member of the 1990 national champions, he just so happens to be a member of the family, too. Eventually, Tark gave Rice his blessing.
If all of this seems incidental to how good UNLV will be in the Dave Rice era -- who cares if a former coach likes the hire, right? -- then it's possible you're missing something about how UNLV basketball works. In some ways, Runnin' Rebel fans are like any other: They remember the good old days, and they want to get them back.
But there's something unique about their fandom. It thrives on success and glamor, or at least it did when the best Vegas teams were running their opponents off the floor. UNLV needs the raucous support of its occasionally transient community. When the Rebels are winning and things are good, those fans can turn the Thomas and Mack Center into one of the country's most exciting places for college hoops. But if the program struggles, well, I can think of a lot of other things to do in Las Vegas on a Saturday night.
The good news is Kruger left the program, and fans' interest therein, in seemingly good shape. The Rebs finished No. 23 in the country in average attendance last season [PDF] with 13,253 fans per game. Considering the cost of tickets, parking and concessions, and all of the distractions created by the city surrounding it -- it would be easy to see UNLV games as just another thing to do in Las Vegas -- it has to be some kind of victory to know that the program's fans are very much of the die-hard variety.
In other words, the program's off-court fundamentals are strong. That's the first item of business. Here's more good news: In 2011-12, this conference is ripe for UNLV's picking.
This has as much to do with UNLV's team as it does with the loss of fellow competitors. BYU bolted for the West Coast Conference, so that's one perennial contender out of the way. San Diego State lost the majority of its stellar 2011 team to graduation and the NBA draft, and while the Aztecs will still compete, they won't be near the powerhouse we saw last season.
That leaves New Mexico, which has slowly stocked up on talent in recent seasons, to challenge a strong, deep and veteran Rebels team for the conference title. So for Rice, success could be immediate.
There are hurdles to climb. The loss of guard Tre'Von Willis removes a dynamic scoring threat from UNLV's offense. Senior forward Chace Stanback, who was arrested on suspicion of DUI earlier this year, may have to miss games due to disciplinary action. But in all, as Diamond ran down today:
UNLV returns four of its top five scorers, including Chace Stanback. The team also adds potential impact transfers in forward Mike Moser and guard Reggie Smith (eligible in December), and is welcoming back top 3-point shooter Kendall Wallace after a torn anterior cruciate ligament forced him to redshirt last season. The Rebels are stacked.
Indeed they are. Just as exciting for UNLV fans is the news that they're about to play like UNLV, too.
It's not that Kruger always played particularly slow. In 2010-11, his team's adjusted tempo was 67.8 possessions per game, good for No. 110 in the country. But more often than not in his tenure at UNLV, Kruger preferred to grind games to a halt and rely on his defense to take over. The Rebels may have been effective, but they were never a particularly entertaining team. (Last season, when they shot a collective 33.0 percent from beyond the arc, they could be downright ugly.)
Rice's hope is to recreate the Tark days by being both effective and entertaining. In June, he told Diamond he planned to install a run-on-every-possession style offense befitting a team with the word "runnin'" in its nickname. And he's even bringing the "Jaws" theme back:
Rice already has promised that the Runnin' Rebels will indeed run on every possession, and playing a fast-paced brand of basketball isn't the only tradition from the Tark the Shark era that he hopes to revive. Rice, who won a national championship playing for Tarkanian, also said the program is considering bringing back the theme music from "Jaws," which used to fire up the Thomas & Mack Arena as the team came onto the court.
The old Tarkanian days are one model for how UNLV could play. But a possibly more relevant example could be the team Rice has coached in recent seasons, Brigham Young. Under his former boss Dave Rose, the Cougars have consistently been one of the fastest teams in the country. They play ordered, secondary-break offense, one that looks for early-clock shots but is willing to pull the ball-out, reset, and then reload the attack.
Of course, BYU also had some dude named Jimmer Fredette, and it's a lot easier to play really good offensive basketball when Fredette is in your backcourt. But the basic principles could just as easily apply to UNLV. Anthony Marshall, Oscar Bellfield and Justin Hawkins are all guards capable of handling the ball in space, scoring when available, and finding open teammates for easy looks. (Marshall and Bellfield posted solid assist rates, while Hawkins limited his turnover percentage to a mere 14.8.)
Meanwhile, Stanback could be the perfect featured player in an uptempo team. He has the size (6-8) to present matchup problems, he can stretch the floor with his outside shooting (he made 36 percent from 3 in 2010-11), and he has a capable mid-range game that would look awfully good taking soft little pull-ups on 4-on-3 fast-break opportunities.
UNLV may not look exactly like the Tark teams of old right away. They aren't going to dominate, that's for sure. But Rice has quite a bit going for him. A solid group of veterans is back for another run at a conference title. The fans are locked in. The conference is wide open. The "Jaws" theme is coming back.
All that's left is the new uptempo offense. If Rice succeeds in installing it, no one -- not even the Tarkfather himself -- will be able to question the hire.
In many ways, family and all, it's already looking like the perfect fit.
Our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive preview with some analytic fun.