Rebels basketball:

As first practice looms, UNLV basketball puts in work for much-anticipated season

The Runnin’ Rebel Scarlet/Gray Showcase, which is free to the public, takes place Thursday, Oct. 18, at the Thomas & Mack Center

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV coach Dave Rice watches during their first practice at Immaculata High School in Ottawa, Ontario Friday, August 17, 2012. The Runnin’ Rebels are taking part in a four game exhibition tour in Canada.

Dave Rice is sitting in his office, and from here it’s easy to see everything that went wrong at the end of his debut season as UNLV’s basketball coach.

“It was a great lesson for me,” Rice said. “I didn’t do a good enough job down the stretch of getting us to continue to play at the same level we played at for the first 24 games. We lost our confidence on the road. We didn’t trust each other as much as we should have.”

It’s the end of September. Rice was on the road recruiting earlier in the week and he had more trips lined up, but when he’s on campus, it’s all about the players. This team, this super-hyped team, and the season it could produce if the pieces fall in place is more than enough to keep his attention.

One week from today the team has its first official practice. In two weeks, on Thursday, Oct. 18, the Rebels host the Runnin’ Rebel Scarlet/Gray Showcase, a free event for the public. It starts at 7 p.m. in the Thomas & Mack Center, and it will include a dunk contest, intrasquad scrimmage and an alumni game with some past UNLV legends. A Fan Fest on the concourse begins at 5 p.m.; doors open at 6 p.m.

For those not among the thousands who packed the Mendenhall Center over the week of practices leading up to UNLV’s trip to Canada in August, this will be their first look at the 2012-13 Rebels. Even those who saw those practices will now get their first look at freshman Anthony Bennett and junior transfer Roscoe Smith, who’s redshirting this year, in Rebel uniforms.

The event will likely fill the Mack with a rowdy crowd that already has cleared its March and, for some, April calendar. That comes with the territory for a likely top-15 team. Their focus is turning that expectation into execution, and that’s where the lessons from last season come into play.

It’s not enough to want to be a running team. Or want to defend 3-pointers. Or want to play well on the road. Last year, the Rebels wanted all of those things and eventually they failed to get them. The hype and excitement of that 21-3 start to the season felt hollow when the Rebels finished 26-9.

“I want us to be as strong in the middle of the year and at the end of the year as we are at the start,” Rice said. “That was one of my frustrations last year, was that we didn’t play our best basketball at the end. We should be peaking at the end of the year, not the opposite.”

That’s why the Rebels were on the UNLV track at 7 a.m., when on the third timed-mile out of four they would run in a month, the leader was freshman Savon Goodman (5 minutes, 30 seconds) with sophomore Khem Birch close behind (5:36). The mile isn’t some impossible distance, but it tests the mental toughness of athletes who are used to the confines of a court.

A new NCAA rule this season has allowed coaches two hours per week of on-court time with the team. Add that to the time spent together with the Canada trip and Rice has a much better feel for this team than last year at the same stage. And every moment together is spent with thoughts of getting better. Physically and mentally, in order to succeed in March, there must be progress now.

“I’ve already learned from last year the importance of having a stronger, more strenuous preseason conditioning program,” Rice said.

There have been improvements even since the Canada trip, Rice said, and the integration of Bennett, Smith and Birch into practice has been easier since the other newcomers already had their breaking-in period.

Fans will get to see for themselves in two weeks. And after that, the team will be officially off and running, heading past, it hopes, a first-game NCAA Tournament exit like last year and toward something worthy of this fanfare. Worthy of the hours and effort already logged and the many more still to come. Worthy of clearing your schedule.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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  1. Can' wait to see them in action!

  2. I see the T&M being packed for this game, let alone the regular season. I'll be there for sure. GO rebs!

  3. 2 words - YEE HAW
    :)

  4. Forget the NCAA tourney. How about the Rebs finally win a conference championship. Next they can beat New Mexico and SDSU in the MWC tourney. After that they can worry about the NCAA.

  5. got to sell out the thomas@mack the football team is draining the budget

  6. Broken hand for Bryce Jones. Bad luck.