UNLV BASKETBALL:

A Day in the Life: On the recruiting trail with UNLV coach Dave Rice

One 15-hour marathon at a time, Rice and staff attempt to piece together important 2012 recruiting class

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Sam Morris

UNLV coach Dave Rice watches Shabazz Muhammad of Dream Vision on Friday, July 22, 2011 during the adidas Super 64 tournament at Rancho High School.

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The Rebel Room

Recruiting season hits its peak

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This week on LasVegasSun.com Sports Talk - doubling as The Rebel Room podcast - Ray Brewer and Ryan Greene break down a busy recruiting month for Dave Rice and his UNLV men's basketball staff. The crazy weekend in Las Vegas included three big tournaments, and the the guys will fill you in on who the staff made sure to go watch, who has emerged as the primary recruiting targets and who could likely be the next commit - or two - in the class of 2012.

Fueled by what will turn out to be a vital bowl of cereal before leaving his Green Valley home, Dave Rice hits the road in his Toyota 4Runner early Saturday morning.

The first-year UNLV men's basketball coach can't tell you exactly how much sleep he got the night before, but he admits that it wasn't much. After logging 15 hours sitting on uncomfortable benches in high school gyms on Friday, it's time for another 15 — an exercise far more physically taxing than one might think.

The marathon begins at Sierra Vista High, where Rice, decked in black sweatpants, gym shoes and a UNLV T-shirt, grabs a seat on the baseline next to his associate head coach, Justin Hutson. Of the 20 or so coaches in attendance, many are watching a smooth, 6-foot-5 wing named Demarquise Johnson. UNLV has zeroed in on him as a prime recruiting target, and it won't be the only time today that they make sure they're in the stands to see him play.

Some players look around to see which coaches are there, but Johnson doesn't appear to be one of them. Locked in, yet not showing even a hint of selfishness in his game, he scores about 30 points in a variety of ways as his team — Team Eleate — rolls to an early morning win. Verbal contact between college coaches and recruits during July tournaments is forbidden, but UNLV lucks out late in the second half, when a loose ball, chased by Johnson, finds its way to Hutson's feet. Hutson grabs it and flips it to him, and Johnson sees that UNLV was dedicated enough to make it to his 8 a.m. game.

From a backpack, Hutson pulls out a sheet of paper with times and locations for each game the staff wants to make sure to be seen at during the day. It's far from cluttered. The list is clear and concise — Just how Rice wants it to be.

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It's called an evaluation period, but Dave Rice and his staff are not really evaluating much more by the time the busy July AAU schedule hits their home turf.

With multiple tournaments and hundreds of games going on at several gyms across the city through the weekend, some staffs will spread themselves out thin, with one coach at a different gym at any given time.

UNLV's staff operates in a different manner.

"I think to a certain degree, we have our primary list of guys that we really like and we really feel we have a legitimate chance to recruit," Rice said. "I think I've always been a guy who zeroed in on certain people.

"I've just always thought it's way better as a staff to concentrate on the guys you're excited about, and for us, we're excited about more guys than we have enough scholarships for, so it's not like we have to hit 100 percent. But I think you do the best job when you're really able to sell your program because you're so excited about the guy you're recruiting."

By narrowing down a list of recruiting targets, that allows for multiple coaches at multiple games. And during July tournaments, without contact allowed, appearance is everything. The more UNLV logos seen in the roped-off coaches' section, the easier it is to know that they mean business.

**********

As soon as Johnson's game ends, Rice is off. Whether he's leaving a gym or just arriving at one, he walks at a brisk pace.

The reason this time is that the next game on his schedule is already underway. Thanks to a series of delays — and an abundance of whistles — in the second half of the day's first game, he's got to get to Bishop Gorman as fast as possible.

Once there, he and Hutson meet again, finding two courtside seats in the hot, stuffy auxiliary gym. Running up and down the floor for the Detroit Stars is 6-foot-11 Matt Willms. He's tall, lanky and clearly needs some work. But he's coordinated, has quick feet and good instincts. It's a great foundation to start from, and coaches in the gym from San Diego State, Minnesota, St. Joe's and several other schools likely see it the same way.

No recruit arrives on campus as a complete package, but with the right guidance along the way, he can become something special. Finding that player at this stage is something Rice has a strong history of doing.

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Before he was known by many simply as 'The Jimmer,' he was just some random kid named Jimmer.

"I think the first time he came to our basketball camp (at BYU) was between his sophomore and junior years, because he has an uncle who lives in the Salt Lake area," Rice recalled. "It took about two possessions of watching him to say 'You know what? We need to recruit this guy, because he has a chance to be special.'

"It was just something about the way he carried himself. He was far from polished, like most guys at that age."

Two years later, Jimmer Fredette suited up for his first game at BYU. And four years after that, he was a National Player of the Year, led the Cougars to 62 wins and a Sweet Sixteen appearance in his final two seasons, became a cult hero, was one of the most popular college basketball players in recent memory and, on top of it all, a lottery pick in the 2011 NBA draft.

"Playing in our system for coach (Dave) Rose, it gave Jimmer a chance to become Jimmer," Rice said. "I think that was such a great fit. Fit is so important in recruiting.

"A guy better go to a place that allows him to be himself and do the things that give him the best chance for success. And there are a lot of really good schools with really good coaches that would not have given Jimmer the freedom that coach Rose and our staff gave him. And you know what? Not everyone is right for that system, either."

But those are the guys Rice is looking for now.

Rice rarely singles himself out, crediting the staff as a whole for everything. However, it was common knowledge over the past few seasons that while BYU was putting up mind-boggling point totals, Rice was serving as the team's offensive coordinator, so to speak.

Now, as a first-time head coach, he's determined to bring that uptempo style with him to the desert. And once he identifies the players he believes fit it best, Jimmer Fredette's success story is one that he can pitch that will grab the attention of the high school players he's currently recruiting. It's a relevant trick he'll likely be able to pull out of his bag for many years to come.

"Jimmer deserves the bulk of the credit for what he became, but the reality is he had a lot of help from our staff," he said. "And so I think the thing that really speaks volumes is that he came to us as a good player, but did not come to us as a finished product. So, I think the fact that I can actually speak with credibility in terms of our role in helping him develop and the freedom we gave him and what that did for him.

"I think there's a baseline of talent, obviously. But we need guys who - It can't just be a guy who wants to shoot the ball every single time down the floor. It also has to be a guy who is willing to play that way, with all kinds of freedom, yet still wants to play with the team."

**********

"He compared me to Jimmer Fredette a lot," Katin Reinhardt said. "How he let him play is how he'll let me play. That freedom, being able to do that stuff, that's what I look at. Look where Jimmer got. He went to the NBA as a lottery pick. So if you could get that kind of coach to be behind you 100 percent, that's everything you could ask for."

That was how Reinhardt — a sweet-shooting 6-foot-4 guard from Southern California — on Friday afternoon described what he liked about UNLV and Rice. That unique offering from UNLV is partly what's keeping the Rebels around in a heated recruiting race that also features heavy-hitters such as Texas, Baylor, Syracuse, North Carolina State, Gonzaga and St. John's.

And mid-way through the second half of the Detroit Stars' slugfest with a team from Sacramento, Calif., the time to move over to the adjacent gym for Reinhardt's 10:30 a.m. game feels right. Again, the young and inexperienced referees are getting whistle-happy. Several coaches in attendance are visibly restless.

Rice makes his move and grabs a second-row baseline seat with Hutson, but when a couple of them open up, they slink down to some spots in the front. Joining them a few minutes later is assistant Heath Schroyer, who just finished watching some younger prospects across town.

Though no coaches will say that positioning in the stands in a setting like this is all that important, when you're trying to take a program like UNLV back up to where it once was by competing against the blue-bloods on the recruiting trails, every little bit helps.

**********

Lon Kruger and his staff at UNLV were already feeling some pressure to land a 2012 recruiting class with some pop to it. Kruger took the Oklahoma job on April 1, Rice was hired a week later and it immediately became his burden to bear.

What heightens expectations in this recruiting class is the wealth of talent in Las Vegas alone in the upcoming senior class.

Rice fondly recalls his recruitment of Cimarron-Memorial High star Marcus Banks back in the late 1990s, landing Banks before many of the major programs were not yet aware of him. Banks didn't qualify academically out of high school, went to Dixie State College in Utah for two years, and when it came time for Rice and the UNLV staff to re-recruit him, the competition this time was much more fierce.

The top prize in this class, obviously, is Shabazz Muhammad. The immensely talented 6-foot-6 wing from Bishop Gorman has made it clear of late that UNLV is still firmly in the hunt, along with the likes of UCLA, Duke and Kentucky. For Rice, his recruitment will likely resemble the second time around with Banks more than the first.

Between Muhammad, 6-foot-7 Gorman teammate Ben Carter, Johnson, Reinhardt and a few others, the Rebels are going after a bevy of prospects currently ranked in the Rivals.com Top150.

They're doing so without hesitation.

"I've always felt that you have to protect your home base, and I think there's never been a time when there were more good players in Vegas than there are now," Rice said. "It's still not easy, because I think the better player that you recruit, by logic, you have a better chance of that player at some point in time telling you no."

That's why the Rebels have put out such a wide net.

Hutson has become known as one of the West Coast's top recruiters. Schroyer's East Coast ties — specifically to the Baltimore and Washington D.C. area — are already netting results, while Stacey Augmon's lengthy résumé as both a player and coach lends instant credibility with any recruit.

The reality also is that Las Vegas will not always — if ever again — be as stocked with prep talent in one recruiting class as it is this year. When that's the case, California may prove to be UNLV's most important recruiting territory.

Rice also feels that the Rebels already made a huge statement there by landing USC transfer Bryce Jones not long after arriving on the job.

"I actually think right now, for me, getting Bryce Jones is a really big deal," he said. "I don't say 'I' very much, but it's my first opportunity to be a head coach, and for as long as I coach, and I hope it's for a long time, Bryce Jones will always be the first guy who said yes to me and our staff. I think that sends a message.

"We talk about the importance of recruiting Las Vegas, and that's really important, but when UNLV has been really good, Los Angeles has been critically important to the recruiting process. I'd make an argument that in the class of 2010, there wasn't a better player coming out of Los Angeles than Bryce Jones."

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Muhammad lives up to the hype. Again.

After scoring just six points in a sluggish first half, he erupts for 26 after the break in front of a nearly packed gym as his team — Dream Vision — storms back for its second come-from-behind victory in as many days. Following one of two left-handed tomahawk dunks over a helpless defender late in the second half, a patch of UNLV fans donning red shirts on the other side of the court begin a 'Rebels' chant, trying to mark their territory in hopes of landing the biggest recruit Las Vegas has ever produced.

Once that show is over, the staff splits during what was expected to be the lone extended break in a busy day.

But only minutes later, Rice's cell phone rings.

"Yes, coach?" he answers.

It's Hutson calling, asking Rice if he wants to head back to Rancho to take a look at a 6-foot-7 forward in the class of 2013 that the staff is intrigued by.

So much for that break. After a quick phone call to check in with his wife, Mindy, it's back into the gym.

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When evaluating players, Rice is looking for two intangible qualities before deciding whether to pursue.

These go beyond just a certain skill level or the aforementioned 'fit,' which are obvious musts.

"The first thing we really look for is if they come from a winning program," he said. "I think that's vitally important. Even great players who come from winning programs have to make some sort of sacrifice on their team. They haven't shot every shot, so I think that's how you build your own winning program in college.

"Number two is work ethic. I really believe that those guys get better. We have a staff of gym rats. We talk about basketball in the office, then we go home and we text back and forth about basketball, so we better have guys in our program who are gym rats and love basketball, or they're not going to make it with us."

As for moving ahead and pursuing those guys, Rice preaches that working the connections is key. The connection is what gets you in the front door, be it through a high school coach, an AAU coach, a friend or a family member.

It's a belief that comes from years of lessons learned, especially during his 11 seasons as a UNLV assistant and two as a player.

"Coach (Tim) Gurgurich was terrific with his approach and ability to develop relationships with high school and AAU coaches and his ability to put the time in," he said. "Mark Warkentien was a mentor to me. He was one of the best recruiters ever at UNLV. And now I look back on the job that Bill Bayno did here. His ability to go from just an assistant coach, where he'd been a great recruiter, and to maintain a lot of his contacts and stay really invested and involved even as a head coach. Billy was really good."

Once in the door, the key to success, in Rice's mind, is believing in what you have to sell.

"We have a great tradition, a great arena, the Mendenhall (practice) facility is going to be as good as any in the country, and guys can get a pretty good education at UNLV," he said. "It's a town that embraces basketball players. Guys who come here, if they don't play professional ball and take care of their business in the classroom, we know it's a town that takes care of those guys, so I think there's a lot to sell about this program."

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It's now the home stretch.

Rice heads back to Bishop Gorman early for a 6 p.m. tip-off at the Fab 48 between Reinhardt's Belmont Shore club and the Oakland Soldiers — arguably the most talent-rich team in Las Vegas for the weekend.

He grabs seats for himself and Hutson in the corner on the sideline, dubbing them as 'Gucci Row.' The title makes more sense just before tip-off, as word of the game changing locations to accommodate the big crowd spreads to the other coaches, and they come rushing in looking for seats. Anywhere.

Before the game gets underway, Rice's 13-year-old son, Travis, who was helping his uncle — Bishop Gorman coach Grant Rice — while running the Fab 48, brings him a Snickers bar. It's The the only food he's consumed in nearly 11 hours. Now it's back to Sierra Vista for Team Eleate's nightcap.

Rice tops off his tank again by stopping at an In-N-Out Burger on Tropicana for a vanilla milkshake. He runs in, orders quickly and scoots out. A few patrons recognize him, both watching him and whispering during his entire brief stop in the restaurant, but he's in a hurry, focused on getting, well, in and out.

Just before the 8:30 game gets going, Rice gets a call from junior guard Anthony Marshall — one of a few of his players he's been texting back and forth with throughout the day. Marshall is out of town training and fills Rice in on his day. The conversation ends with Rice reminding him that, while the staff's July is consumed by recruiting, he can't wait until school starts and he can begin working regularly with his current guys.

**********

If Rice had it his way, he said that he'd shorten the July recruiting periods in order to create more time with his team. He'd gladly trade a few days in July for a couple of more evaluating weekends in April.

"By far, the hardest part (of July) is being away from our players and our team," Rice said. "I will text all of our players all of the time just to make sure that they know that they are what's most important. The system is such where we have to be out. I think it's important for me as a head coach to know that our guys hear from me. During the dead period, I make sure I see all the guys and spend time with them."

With all of the excitement that the piecing together of the 2012 recruiting class has caused, it's often forgotten that there's actually a season to play first.

Marshall will be one of the centerpieces on a team that carries big expectations in Rice's inaugural season. Eight key contributors return from a team that won 24 games last season and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years. There are also three key welcome additions in transfers Mike Moser (UCLA) and Reggie Smith (Marquette), along with the return of sharpshooter Kendall Wallace from a knee injury.

There will likely be some bumps in the road early on, as there's plenty of work needed before the current team is ready to smoothy execute Rice's uptempo style of play for a full 40 minutes. Conditioning will be one of the key areas of focus.

Maintaining strong relationships with those guys during the long summer months might make that trail a bit smoother, though, come this fall.

"I learned a long time ago — I learned this from coach Grg, and I think it's a philosophy that you can never lose sight of as a head coach — that often, your best recruits are your current players," Rice said. "In other words, your ability as a staff to help your current players get better, I think, is all part of the recruiting process."

**********

The last stop of the day: Back at Bishop Gorman for a third time.

The Las Vegas Lakers — whose roster includes Carter and 6-foot-8 Gorman swingman Rosco Allen — play at 9:45 p.m.

The game ends just after 11 p.m., and Rice, now surely running on fumes and a few traces of sugar, corrals Travis so he can once again head home for a few precious hours of rest. He has another early day ahead of him tomorrow. Most coaches in town begin to head out of town on Sunday, but with the tournaments being held in his program's backyard, if there's a UNLV target player, he wants to be there.

Another bowl of cereal in the morning, and he'll be good to go.

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  1. Really good stuff ryan - I think everyone in town is really stoked to see what unfolds

  2. Some of your best UNLV work, RG. Way to go.

  3. I've seen our coaches all over the place from Centennial to Gorman to Sierra Vista and Rancho. No matter what the results of this recruiting are, nobody will be able to say our staff got out-worked. Keep it up Rice & Co.; the glory days are coming back!

  4. Ryan, this was an outstanding article! Thank you for the insight.

  5. Love the story Ryan, had a good time out there as well. My daughter stayed through a 13 hour day of basketball with me. Her favorite part was playing who can spot the UNLV coach first. I'm not sure who all we will get but it surely won't be from lack of effort. Keep up the work guys, Rebel pride.

  6. Great job Ryan, love these type of articles.

  7. Thanks for the kind words, guys.

    Al, the "won't be from a lack of effort" comment is spot-on. I know most coaching staffs work hard in this month, but know that UNLV's is certainly one of them. They're all basketball junkies who are passionate about what they do, and that was pretty clear by the end of the day on Saturday.

  8. Great article, Ryan!

    I hope Coach Rice can keep up the pace. Get that man something more healthy than a snickers and vanilla shake to eat during the day! :)

  9. I'm loving all the rebel coverage this year! this season is gonna be awesome

  10. Absolutely great stuff Ryan. You've been doing a fanstastic job covering the Rebels. I wish I had your talent for writing. Great Story.

  11. The only thing more that I could ask for is that coach rice can help schedule teams by using the bazz angle. Every team that wants him would probably want a home and home to try to persuade him because his family could come watch. let's schedule Kentucky and try to get duke, ect... Do you know if unlv is trying to capitalize on this.

  12. Dain I think you are really getting ahead of yourself. We can't play off teams wanting to play against Shabazz when there is only a SLIM chance that we will get him. Even if we do end up landing him, big teams would almost be less likely to want to play us in the non-conference season. Why schedule an out of conference team that is a likely loss?

    Great reporting Ryan! I already have Rebel fever! We just have to last through rebel football till October...

  13. Great job Ryan, makes the dead time go by a bit faster with some news.

    Eat, sleep, basketball. The most dedicated get the most reward. Rice and co. are busting and I think the potential recruits are noticing that.

  14. Great article!!! I am so excited for basketball season, and to see how recruiting pans out. We're looking good. GO REEBELS!!!!!

  15. Soooooo good to see D. Rice back in his appropriate scarlet & gray togs. Coach Rice in byu (sub-case intended) blue was a travesty of unmeasurable proportions!

    Much good luck on the recruiting trail, Coach Rice.

  16. I'm not getting ahead of
    Myself. You can't wait till he commits somewhere first or they will not come to play us. I'm not implying that we are getting him. Even if he goes somewhere else we could still use the exposed of playing that team. Unlv of old rose to the top by playing and winning (most of the time) anyone. That's also how gonzaga got where they are today. Play the big teams for exposure. Teams will schedule home and homes now cause they can use that to pitch to bazz about going to their school. If you wait till he commits then you have no chance. On a side note, playing Kentucky or duke is not a garenteed loss buddy. Especially if it's at the t&m

  17. In case anyone is curious to see what our Rebel team may look like under Coach Rice, I suggest youtubing "UNLV Arkansas 1990" or even "UNLV New Mexico State 1990". Someone put the entire UNLV NMSU thriller on ESPN Big Monday where NMSU won by 1 in 7 parts and a abridged version of Arkansas/UNLV in 2 parts. Granted the players won't be as good now (close perhaps), but my God, it brought back some great memories. Now if only I can find some local TV broadcasts with Chick Hearn and Ross Porter (yes they once announced UNLV games).

  18. I was talking about big teams scheduling UNLV when UNLV would likely beat them... I am all for us scheduling big name schools. I wish we could fill our non conference schedule with the likes of Duke and Kentucky! However Just last year Coach K for example said the only way Duke and UNLV will meet is in a tournament. I don't think we can schedule a home and home with an east coast school. Big time school do not like to travel far and play decent teams, they are too afraid of hurting their own RPI with a loss.

    Maybe Kentucky or Kansas or some school closer than the east coast will schedule a series with us...

  19. Big BCS schools hate to schedule non-BCS schools especially away games. No one wants to play Gonzaga for example because they have a 93% win percentage at home, so they end up having to play in Seattle for big games.

    MWC teams are in a weird spot where they aren't really mid-major schools, and aren't quite high major schools either (until that coveted BCS label is put on them). I'm really glad we got the teams we got on the road, and if UNLV cam come away with a few of those, they will be in great shape.

  20. Great article, Ryan! We appreciate all of your hard work, especially those of us Rebels no longer living in Vegas. GO REBELS!