LAS VEGAS (AP) Dave Rice knew there would be pressure when he took the job at UNLV. He played on the Runnin’ Rebels’ 1990 championship team and spent 11 seasons as an assistant at the school, so he understood the expectations in Sin City.
But as Rice enters his fifth season at his alma mater, the pressure is definitely building – and he’s embracing it.
“When you’re at UNLV, there’s always pressure,” Rice said. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted the job, because people care.”
Rice took over a program already in good shape. Lon Kruger took UNLV to the NCAA Tournament his final two seasons before leaving for Oklahoma and Rice made a seamless transition, leading the Rebels into the bracket in his first two seasons.
UNLV went through a tumultuous season in 2013-14 to miss the NCAA Tournament and Rice decided to give the Rebels a fresh start by rebuilding the program from the ground up last season. He had just signed a contract extension and figured he had the leeway to reset the foundation to build the team he wanted.
That meant a young team for 2014-15; eight new players, several others thrust into bigger roles.
The Rebels got off to a solid start, holding their own during one of the nation’s toughest nonconference schedules.
Once the Mountain West season started, UNLV started showing signs of inconsistency and the season took a turn for the worse when Rashad Vaughn injured his knee against Fresno State. The Rebels limped down the stretch without their talented freshman and were bounced from the Mountain West tournament in the second round, assuring another missed NCAA Tournament.
With two straight seasons without making the NCAA Tournament, the rumors began to swirl that Rice was on his way out. Instead, UNLV stuck with him, giving the 47-year-old another chance to get the Rebels back into March Madness.
“I feel good about the decision I made to build this program the right way,” Rice said. “The good part is I’m the coach, we have a good team and I think we’re going to have a very successful year.”
The Rebels certainly have the pieces for success.
UNLV lost Vaughn – the 17th overall pick in the NBA draft – and Christian Wood, but have four sophomores back who played extensively last season. The Rebels also will add three veteran players who sat out last season: Oregon transfer Ben Carter, Rutgers transfer Jerome Seagears and junior guard Daquan Cook, who missed last season after tearing his ACL.
And, as has been the case at UNLV the past few years, Rice brought in another stellar recruiting class, led by 7-foot center Stephen Zimmerman Jr. and high-flying forward Derrick Jones, two players coveted by some of the biggest programs in the country.
“I like our personnel, I like our depth and I think last year could be the building block for a breakthrough season this year,” Rice said.
Zimmerman was a huge coup for Rice and the Rebels.
A potential game-changer at both ends of the floor, Zimmerman played at nearby Bishop Gorman High School and UNLV had recruited him since his freshman year.
Being able to keep one of the nation’s top recruits from leaving the state helps cement the recruiting foundation Rice set the previous years with players like Vaughn and Anthony Bennett, the first overall pick of the 2013 NBA draft.
“Now we’ve kind of turned the corner in terms of proving that we can recruit high-level guys and now I think we can be even a little more selective,” Rice said. “I like where we are.”
The next step is to start winning again – and take some of the pressure off.