At his first team meeting after taking over as UNLV's coach last April, Dave Rice told the players that his goal was "to put the 'runnin' back in Runnin' Rebels." Rice's predecessor, Lon Kruger, called a lot of set plays and had a quick hook when players missed a shot or two, which made them less assertive.
"Coach Rice came and told us we were going to get up and down and that he was going to let us be aggressive," says junior guard Justin Hawkins. "It was what everyone wanted to hear."
The looser, more confident Rebels are 8--1, including a signature 90--80 win over then No. 1 North Carolina on Nov. 26. That impressive start has generated talk that this may be UNLV's most promising team since the early 1990s. "You can just feel it—things are getting going around Vegas," says sophomore forward Mike Moser. "And they should be. We are going to do some great things this year."
If the Rebels are able to win the Mountain West for the first time since 2000, fans will look back on two decisions that made the difference: The school's move to hire Rice after Kruger left for Oklahoma last April, and Moser's choice to transfer to UNLV from UCLA two seasons ago.
Rice, a role player on the Rebels' 1990 national title team who has kicked around as an assistant at five schools (most recently at BYU) was not the popular choice—former UNLV star Reggie Theus would have been the flashier hire—but he got the job.
"I had an advantage having been in the [Mountain West] conference. I knew what kind of team Coach Kruger left," says Rice, who was also an assistant at UNLV from 1994 to 2001. "I knew there was the talent here and the kind of kids who would be committed on defense and then capable of really pushing the ball and playing as fast as we can."
The school's marketing campaign for the season was titled "Let's Run," but a more accurate slogan would be "Let's Shoot." UNLV has attempted about eight more three-pointers per game than it did last season, which is no surprise considering that Rice was the architect of the BYU offense built around gunner Jimmer Fredette.
"Be aggressive, run and the freedom to shoot: That's the plan," Moser says. "We love it."
The 6'8", 195-pound forward from Portland played sparingly his freshman season, at UCLA in 2009--10. He didn't like the Bruins' slow tempo on offense and says, "I couldn't see myself succeeding under [Ben Howland's] coaching style there." He met another UCLA transfer, senior Chace Stanback, on his visit to UNLV and became sold on the school's success with transfers. (There are currently five on the roster.)
Already blessed with long arms and great leaping ability, Moser added 15 pounds of muscle during his redshirt year. Against North Carolina the added strength served him well, as he had 16 points, a career-best six assists and 18 rebounds, three more than the combined total of Tar Heels stars (and presumed NBA lottery picks) John Henson and Tyler Zeller.
At week's end Moser was the nation's leading rebounder, averaging 12.5 per game to go with a team-high scoring average of 16.9. One NBA scout who attended the game against North Carolina said that Moser had worked his way into the "first-round discussion."
"He has great timing, awareness and instincts, but the main reason he is a fabulous rebounder is he believes every rebound is his and no one will outwork him," says Rice. "As far as what else he can do, he is just scratching the surface."
Rice uses Moser in the post and lets him handle the ball on the break, and Moser has shown three-point range. (He made six treys in the 94--88 double-overtime win over UC Santa Barbara on Nov. 30.) UNLV is far from a one-man team, however, as Rice uses a nine-man rotation that will balloon to 10 on Dec. 17 when 6-foot guard Reggie Smith, a transfer from Marquette, becomes eligible.
"I believe guys don't have to be close off the floor to be good teammates, but our guys are, and that's a benefit," says Rice. "They pull for each other even when it might mean less playing time for them."
With road games upcoming against national power Wisconsin (Dec. 10), Illinois (Dec. 17) and a home game against Pac-12 favorite Cal (Dec. 23), the Rebels will certainly be tested. But this much is certain:
They are off and runnin'.
Punt return revolution
Bobby V matters
WAIT TILL THIS YEAR?
Northwestern has never been to the NCAA tournament. Harvard has—just once—in 1946, when the field consisted of eight schools. This year, however, after decades of false starts and false hope, both the Wildcats and the Crimson look to have legitimate shots at the Big Dance. How legitimate, though? SI asked Harvard alum Pablo S. Torre and Northwestern's Luke Winn to break down their hapless alma maters' March fortunes
Senior forward Keith Wright (44)
Senior forward John Shurna (24)
Before he was appointed Secretary of Education by President Barack Obama, Arne Duncan co-captained the Crimson.
Hall of Fame quarterback Otto Graham came to NU on a hoops scholarship and was an All-America swingman in 1944.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer
Fake news pundit Stephen Colbert
Giveaways. An otherwise methodical offense is still making mistakes: The Crimson's 22.6 turnover percentage ranks 228th in the nation.
Interior defense. The Wildcats lack the brawn to defend powerful post players, and they have allowed opponents to make 52.1% of their shots inside the arc.
Last March, in an epic one-game playoff against Princeton for the Ivy League's automatic bid, Tigers guard Douglas Davis sank a buzzer-beating leaner for a 63--62 KO.
CLOSEST NCAA CALL
Shurna led the Wildcats to back-to-back 20--14 records in 2009--10 and '10--11, which put Northwestern near the NCAA bubble, but it wasn't really that close.
For a century, some say, the ghost of comically underpaid Harvard hoops coach George Grebenstein (salary in 1907: $75) has haunted Cambridge. In 2007, by no coincidence perhaps, Harvard hired Tommy Amaker (who makes significantly more than $75).
NU angered the tournament gods by tearing down its original Patten Gym in 1940, one year after the venue played host to the first Final Four (won by Oregon). The school was making room for a new technical institute.
28--2, 13--1 Ivy, NCAA No. 8 seed
21--11, 9--9 Big Ten, NCAA No. 11 seed
Photographs by JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
LIFTOFF With 34 points and 10 rebounds in the double-overtime win over Santa Barbara last week, Moser (43) became a breakout star.
SCOTT CUNNINGHAM (WRIGHT)
JEFF BLAKE/US PRESSWIRE (SHURNA)