LAS VEGAS — UNLV coach Dave Rice knew his team would get off to a slow start. With so many young players and a brutal schedule, there wasn’t much question.
What Rice hoped was that the young Rebels would learn from their tough early-season lessons and become a better team because of it.
Coming off a program-defining win over No. 3 Arizona, UNLV enters the Mountain West Conference season a more confident, well-rounded team thanks to its rigorous early schedule.
“I just thought the more opportunities we had to play top-notch opponents, the quicker we’d get better and the more opportunities we’d have for success,” Rice said. “I think the hard games we played and that game (Arizona) will certainly help us when we get to conference.”
The Rebels went into the season talented but untested, with no returning starters and eight new players, including five true freshmen.
Those new players included one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, but it was going to take time for the Rebels to mesh with so many new parts.
And, as Rice predicted, UNLV struggled through parts of the early season.
The Rebels trailed Morehead State and Sam Houston State each by 11 before pulling out victories in their first two games. UNLV then was blown out by Stanford, fell apart in the second half of a blowout loss to Arizona State and struggled in a loss against Utah. The Rebels also needed overtime to beat Portland at home.
But through all the hardships, the players learned the way Rice wants them to practice, play and understand scouting reports. The young players got used to the jump from high school to college not by dipping their toes, but by jumping all the way in against some of the nation’s best programs.
The lessons set the foundation for UNLV’s 71-67 victory over Arizona on Dec. 23, which sent the fans rushing to the court inside the Thomas and Mack Center.
“It certainly is great for our new group just to see what focus and hard work and camaraderie can result in,” Rice said. “We have great respect for Arizona’s program and how good they are, so it was a very important program win for us to beat a highly regarded, nationally ranked team like Arizona. It’s a significant win for us this year and it’s certainly going to serve us well in the recruiting process and as we build our program.”
The Rebels (9-3) appear to be in good shape for the start of the Mountain West season Wednesday at Wyoming.
Freshman Rashad Vaughn has lived up to the hype of being one of the top high school recruits in the country, leading the Rebels with 18.1 points per game. Smooth and athletic, he’s become more confident as the season has progressed and combined with Christian Wood to hit some big shots down the stretch against Arizona.
“There’s no doubt from Day 1, just for his reputation and the fact that we need him to score points, he’s been a marked man on every team’s scouting report,” Rice said. “Teams have been physical with him and some teams have tried to take him out of first and second options, and I think over time he’s made progress in terms of sustaining effort and how physical this level is.”
Wood has started to assert himself more in his sophomore season and has become a force inside instead of just being a face-up shooter. He’s averaging 14.6 points and 10 rebounds while combining with Goodluck Okonoboh to anchor UNLV’s swat-shotting defense.
“We’ve talked about since the start of the season that for us to be successful, he’s going to have to be a dominant force on both ends of the floor in the post,” Rice said. “He absolutely did that against Arizona and our last game against Southern Utah.”
Point guard Cody Doolin, a transfer from San Francisco, has provided the steadying influence that was missing in Las Vegas last season. He leads the Mountain West with 4.6 assists per game and is 34th nationally with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.89.
“He obviously has a very positive statistical effect on our team this year, but I think the impact will be felt next year,” Rice said. “With as many young freshmen as we have, they’ve learned from his senior leadership, how to prepare, how to work hard, how to practice, how to prepare and be a professional, so to speak. And I think that’s going to carry over until after he’s gone.”
It should help the Rebels for the rest of the season, too.