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Jones: Runnin' Rebels' mediocrity is a mystery

Published January 21, 2014 4:12 pm

Runnin' Rebels in eighth place in the Mountain West Conference.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The whispers have been heard around the Mountain West Conference. The scattered boos and confused silence of the Thomas & Mack Center have been duly noted. The single question surrounding UNLV basketball is one that begs to be answered.

How can the Rebels be so … mediocre?

On paper, this is certainly one of the best teams in the MWC, and should be an NCAA Tournament lock. Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch are both NBA talents, athletes at power forward and center whom no team in their conference outside of San Diego State should be able to match up with. Bryce Dejean-Jones is a superior scorer at shooting guard. The roster is ripe with talented basketball players.

In light of this, there should be little reason for the Rebels — always one of the glamour college basketball programs out west — to be 11-7 overall, and 2-3 in the MW. As such, the honeymoon is over for head coach Dave Rice — the former BYU assistant and Dave Rose's recruiting wizard. For Rice, this is his first real challenge: finding a way to get his enigmatic squad on the same page.

It's a challenge his fan base is begging for him to solve — and quickly

"The key for our season, and the key for any team, is when the only agenda for everyone on the team is to try to win the basketball game," Rice recently told the Las Vegas Sun. "And if we're not all on the same page on every possession, we might not win."

UNLV's inconsistency has to be maddening for everyone involved with the program. Rice's team has lost five times at home this season. And just when you're about to turn your back on them for good, the Rebels go into the Pit and defeat New Mexico on the road. One night, UNLV is losing to Dixie State. Three weeks later, the Rebels go to Tuscon and give No. 1 Arizona all it can handle before losing 63-58.

Following the loss to the Wildcats, Rice told reporters that he thought his team had a very good chance to come together during league play. A month after those remarks, it hasn't happened. Going into Wednesday's game against Utah State, the Rebels are tied for eighth in the Mountain West.

A big part of UNLV's problem has been inconsistent point guard play, where Rice has flip-flopped between freshman Kendall Smith and junior Deville Smith. Neither has stepped up and run the team the way Rice would like. Neither has done a great job of getting the ball to the big guns in the frontcourt.

As a result, UNLV needs a huge stretch run to make a case for an at-large NCAA Tournament berth. Much more likely, the Rebels will be running in the NIT at the end of the season, barring Rice's team winning the MWC's postseason tournament.

With all of UNLV's talent, that's a bad spot to be in.

It's tough to feel sorry for Rice. He's still an ace recruiter. Coming aboard next season will be Dwayne Morgan, a five-star small forward, who is ranked among the top 20 high school players in the country. Four-star center Goodluck Okonoboh is signed as well. He is considered the best shot-blocking prepster in the country.

With the likes of Smith and Birch slated to return next season, UNLV will again be super-talented. For now, though, the Rebels remain the biggest mystery in the Mountain West Conference.

tjones@sltrib.com The West

No. 1 Arizona (18-0)

Utah gets its chance vs. No. 1 Wildcats on Sunday

No. 2 San Diego State (16-1)

Breezing through the Mountain West

No. 3 California (14-4)

Has clearly emerged as Pac-12's second best team

No. 4 New Mexico (13-4)

Battles with San Diego State will be fun

No. 5 Gonzaga (16-3)

Has steadied things after early conference loss

No. 6 UCLA (14-4)

Bruins formidable, despite loss to Utah

No. 7 Colorado (15-4)

Got much-needed win over USC

No. 8 Utah (14-4)

Can Utes finally get a road win?

No. 9 BYU (13-7)

Five consecutive wins can't be ignored

No. 10 Stanford (12-5)

Physically, the most imposing team in the Pac-12

No. 11 Boise State (13-5)

Engineered miracle win over Utah State

No. 12 Oregon (13-4)

Sinking fast; nonconference wins keep Ducks on list