Dave Rice

Four-star guard Jaylen Fisher commits to UNLV

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With three scholarship seniors in its backcourt rotation entering the 2015-16 season, UNLV had some holed to fill with regards to the Class of 2016. Dave Rice and his staff have managed to address this issue on the recruiting trail, and Wednesday evening the Mountain West program received its fourth verbal commitment in the Class of 2016.

6-foot-2 point guard Jaylen Fisher, ranked 55th in the Class of 2016 by Rivals, announced that he will be a Runnin’ Rebel. Fisher, who attends Bolton HS in Memphis and played for the Team Thad grassroots program, picked UNLV over Memphis, Arkansas, Baylor and Indiana.

He joins fellow guard Christian Vital, wing Carlos Johnson and four-star forward Justin Jackson in UNLV’s 2016 recruiting class to date.

Adding Fisher to the mix gives UNLV another option at the point in 2016-17, with Daquan Cook due to be a redshirt senior that year with the two freshmen (Fisher and Vital) coming aboard. Fisher’s a good ball-handler and distributor who can also help UNLV defensively at the point. UNLV won’t lack for talent off the ball either, with sophomores Pat McCaw and Jordan Cornish having eligibility remaining as will current freshman Jalen Poyser.

And while the addition of Fisher is a positive for UNLV, having a talented player leave your city isn’t a good sign for Memphis especially when considering the pressure on head coach Josh Pastner to get the Tigers back to playing at the level their fan base expects them to play at.

Video credit: Courtside Films

Three-star wing commits to UNLV

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UNLV landed its second recruit of the week on Friday night, as Carlos Johnson, a three-star wing, announced his commitment via Twitter.

“Happy to announce my commitment to UNLV,” he tweeted.

Johnson, who attends Findlay Prep in nearby Henderson, Nevada, joins guard Christian Vital, who picked the Rebels on Wednesday night, and four-star forward Justin Jackson in the Class of 2016.

The 6-foot-4 Johnson played for the Oakland Soldiers on the grassroots circuit, averaging 12.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.0 assists per game in 19 appearances in the Nike EYBL.

UNLV hoping summer work results in better finishes next season

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In a season that fell far short of expectations, UNLV went 18-15 and finished 8-10 in Mountain West play despite having one the the conference’s most talented rotations. There are a number of reasons for the lack of success, one of which being the team’s struggles in close games.

Of UNLV’s 15 losses nine were by six points or less, and another close loss was their nine-point overtime defeat at eventual regular season co-champion Boise State in mid-January. With Rashad Vaughn and Christian Wood among those who have moved on, the Runnin’ Rebels are working on the court and in the weight room this summer to ensure that there’s better chemistry and the team is better equipped to close out tight games.

In a story by Ed Graney of the Las Vegas Review-Journal that focused on the impact that USA Basketball calling Las Vegas home for part of the summer has on the UNLV program, head coach Dave Rice touched on the team’s efforts to turn things around in 2015-16.

Strength and conditioning at the college level is a year-round endeavor now.

It’s part of one’s lifestyle in the NBA.

“We have to get physically and mentally tougher,” Rice said. “We were in a lot of games last year that we just didn’t finish. We have to get over the top in those. It’s important for our guys to walk in here and see how big NBA players are. They are obviously extremely talented and athletic, but they’re also physically strong. If you’re going to have an opportunity to play at that level, you better be strong.”

Once again UNLV won’t lack for individual talent, with elite forwards Stephen Zimmerman and Derrick Jones leading the incoming freshmen and transfers such as Jerome Seagears (who sat out last season) and Ike Nwamu available as well. Add in the returnees, including sophomores Patrick McCaw and Goodluck Okonoboh, and the Runnin’ Rebels have the individual pieces needed to take a step forward.

But we’ve said that before. The key question: do they have the collective mindset (and toughness) needed to do so? Rice is hopeful that his team getting to observe some of the best players in the sport will rub off on them, thus sparking a change for the better.

UNLV releases non-conference slate that includes games against Arizona, Oregon and Wichita State

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While the 2014-15 season was a disappointing one for the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, as a team pegged to be a contender in the Mountain West didn’t play in a postseason tournament, a talented recruiting class has sparked optimism in Las Vegas. Add in the fact that the fan base would like to see more production from Dave Rice’s team both within the Mountain West and nationally, and the 2015-16 season will be a big one when it comes to the future of the program.

With that in mind, Wednesday the program released its full non-conference schedule and it’s safe to say that UNLV will go into conference play having been challenged on multiple occasions. Among the games on the slate are road contests at Wichita State (December 9) and Arizona (December 19), a home game against Arizona State (December 16) and a game at the MGM Grand Garden Arena against Oregon (December 4).

And they’re also playing in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational prior to Thanksgiving, with the field including host Chaminade, Indiana, Kansas, St. John’s, UCLA, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest.

“We have again put together an extremely challenging schedule,” Rice said in the release. “Last year we ranked No. 3 in the country in strength of schedule for our non-conference season, and this season it may be even tougher. There is no question it will prepare us well for another competitive Mountain West slate.”

While there are some games UNLV will be expected to take care of, such as pre-Maui home contests against New Mexico Highlands and Southern Utah, from a strength of schedule standpoint they’ll more than make up for those given the presence of challenging games away from Thomas & Mack Center.

UNLV opens its regular season November 13 at home against Cal Poly.

Questions remain regarding UNLV’s final available scholarship

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The 2015-16 season is an important one for the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, as an influx of talent combined with some solid returnees is expected to pay dividends on the court. Add in the fact that the program has missed out on the NCAA tournament in each of the last two seasons, with UNLV yet to win a tournament game under the leadership of head coach Dave Rice, and 2015-16 sets up as a campaign that could set the tone for years to come as well.

Even with the addition of players such as grad student Ike Nwamu and freshmen Stephen Zimmerman and Derrick Jones, Rice and his staff still have a scholarship at their disposal for the 2015-16 season. And according to Matt Youmans of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, there are a couple possibilities when it comes to filling that scholarship.

UNLV’s still in the running for former Florida guard Eli Carter, who’s also considering Memphis and Georgetown and will be eligible immediately, and 2016 commit Justin Jackson could reclassify to 2015. Or, UNLV could simply leave the scholarship open.

Rice is planning to utilize more players and frequent three-guard lineups next season. He envisions a team that plays pressure defense and runs, and he needs depth to execute his plan. But he already has 12 scholarship players who are expecting to see significant minutes, and Carter would be the 13th. No college coach in the country uses more than 10 players regularly.

Jackson, a highly touted UNLV commit, left Findlay Prep a year early with hopes of reclassifying as a 2015 recruit, but his status remains in limbo. Jackson made Canada’s Under-19 National Team roster and will compete in the FIBA World Championships in late June.

With the Under-19 World Championships running through July 5 it’s unknown when Jackson, who attended Findlay Prep last season, would make a decision regarding his status. UNLV has depth on the perimeter and in the paint, and as the report notes they have players who are expecting to be factors in the rotation.

They’ll all have to compete for minutes, but the question for Rice is whether he’d have the right balance with 12 players or if there’s a need for one more. And the answer will have an impact on whether or not the Runnin’ Rebels rebound from a disappointing 2014-15 campaign.

Looking Forward: Seven coaches who’ll enter 2015-16 on the ‘hot seat’

Buyout aside, 2015-16 will be big for Tom Crean (AP Photo)
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Buyout aside, 2015-16 will be big for Tom Crean (AP Photo)

With the early entry process over and with just about every elite recruit having picked a school, we now have a pretty good idea of what college basketball will look like in 2015-16. Over the next three weeks, we’ll be taking an early look at next season.

Today, we’re Looking Forward at some coaches who are on the proverbial hot seat:

READ MORE: The NBCSports.com preseason top 25

Tom Crean, Indiana: Without much in the way of front court depth the Hoosiers won 20 games and reached the NCAA tournament in 2014-15, but even that isn’t enough for a fan base accustomed to seeing high-level basketball. That’s what makes the 2015-16 season such an important one for Crean, $7.5 million buyout (come July 1) or not. Guards Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon Jr. both decided to return to school, and five-star big man Thomas Bryant will be joining the program as well. The pieces are there for Indiana to make some noise nationally, and Crean needs to take advantage.

Brian Gregory, Georgia Tech: With one above-.500 season in four years in Atlanta (16-15 in 2012-13), the 2015-16 season is an important one for Gregory. The Yellow Jackets went 12-19 last season, and their interior depth took a hit with Demarco Cox and Robert Sampson running out of eligibility. But Charles Mitchell returns and Alabama transfer Nick Jacobs will be eligible, and on the perimeter players such as Marcus Georges-Hunt and Tadric Jackson are back as well. In short, Georgia Tech needs to make some serious progress in the win column and that won’t be easy to do in the ACC.

John Groce, Illinois: The Fighting Illini have missed the NCAA tournament in each of the last two seasons, the first time that’s happened since 1991 and 1992. Rayvonte Rice and Nnanna Egwu may be gone, but junior guards Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate all return to Champaign as will Tracy Abrams (torn ACL in 2014-15). Illinois also adds four freshmen, led by guard Jalen Coleman-Lands, and even with questions to be answered in the front court getting back to the tournament is something that needs to happen.

READ MORE: Eleven potential Breakout Stars in 2015-16 | Eight intriguing coaching hires

Barry Hinson, Southern Illinois: At the end of last season SIU lost five players to transfer, with three of those players deciding to leave after their freshman year. Add in two 14-win seasons followed by a 9-22 campaign in 2014-15, and the 2015-16 season becomes a very important one for Hinson. Leading scorer Anthony Beane returns for his senior season, but outside of him there are a lot of personnel questions to be answered in Carbondale. That could make it tough for the Salukis to take a step forward in the Missouri Valley.

Dave Rice, UNLV: Rice and his staff have made significant strides on the recruiting trail during his tenure, but that hasn’t led to great results both within the Mountain West and nationally. Since Rice took over his alma mater UNLV’s finished no higher than third in the Mountain West, and after reaching the NCAA tournament in each of his first two seasons (losing their opener in both) the Runnin’ Rebels missed out on the Big Dance in 2014 and 2015. With one of the nation’s top recruiting classes led by Stephen Zimmerman arriving on campus, UNLV will once again be expected to be a player within the conference and nationally.

Lorenzo Romar, Washington: Romar and his staff have managed to put together a seven-member recruiting class ranked tenth nationally by Rivals.com. And it’s a good thing they did, as the Huskies lost a number of players either to graduation or transfer, with point guard Nigel Williams-Goss ultimately landing at Gonzaga. That leaves rising senior guard Andrew Andrews as the most experienced player for a program that hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2011. Young roster or not, especially in a Pac-12 that will be improved, that drought can’t get to the fifth straight season.

Kevin Willard, Seton Hall: Last season got off to such a positive start for the Pirates, spending three straight weeks in the national polls in the middle of the season. Then, the roof caved in. Injuries and chemistry issues led to the Pirates losing nine of eleven games, going from a team that appeared to be headed to the NCAA tournament to one that didn’t play in any postseason tournament. Add in the midseason departure of Jaren Sina and Sterling Gibbs’ decision to transfer, and Willard’s Pirates have some holes to fill on the perimeter. Willard will need his sophomore class led by Isaiah Whitehead and Angel Delgado to produce in a big way in 2015-16.