UNLV basketball:

Uncertainty surrounds revamped Rebels heading into 2013-14 season

A plethora of new faces plus an early injury have UNLV facing a lot of questions entering coach Dave Rice’s third season

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV coach Dave Rice stands on the court as he watches his Rebels take on Dixie State Friday, Nov. 1, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

The spotlight can be unforgiving. It makes obvious every blemish or flaw and creates jealousy when it’s focused too much on one or two players while the rest of the team remains off stage.

The few Rebels remaining from last season know this. They know about fractures and cliques and about withering when that spotlight gets too hot. They also know they don’t want to live through that again.

It may be a blessing, then, that UNLV has pushed the reset button at least halfway down this year. The roster features 10 players who haven’t played a regular-season minute for UNLV, and four of them will be in the starting lineup tonight at 7:30 when the Rebels begin the 2013-14 season at home against Portland State.

“It’s a group that likes each other on the court and likes each other off the court,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “We all know we have a lot to learn.”

Six of the Rebels’ top players — arguably the top six — are all transfers with previous Division I experience. That’s a unique situation compared to other teams around the country and one that comes with its own set of positives and negatives.

On the plus side, even newcomers like Deville Smith and Jelan Kendrick have previous playing experience. They were at Mississippi State and Ole Miss, respectively, before playing last season at junior colleges.

Junior Roscoe Smith won a national championship at UConn three years ago and worked with the Rebels’ scout team while redshirting last year. And Kevin Olekaibe scored 34 points over two victories against UNLV last season while he was with Fresno State.

The downside is none of those guys have played a season together, yet all of them will get a lot of minutes.

“With this many new faces,” Rice said, “we know it’s going to take awhile for us to be playing our best basketball.”

The other two transfers are returners Khem Birch (Pittsburgh) and Bryce Dejean-Jones (USC), the unquestioned leaders and most important players on the team. Birch will start tonight after missing the second exhibition game with ankle and toe injuries. Olekaibe is expected to slide right into the starting lineup to fill in at shooting guard while Dejean-Jones recovers from a strained hamstring suffered in the first exhibition game.

“It kind of sucks because I’ve already sat out a year,” Dejean-Jones said. “… But it will be a good experience for everybody else right now, especially these first couple of games.”

On Thursday, Dejean-Jones did some stairs workouts and shot the ball very well. Rice said it’s fair to expect him back in the next week or so, but nobody is comfortable yet announcing a firmer target date for his return. They don’t want to deal with this all year, and in addition to Olekaibe it opens up playing time for freshman Kendall Smith.

That could pay off down the stretch, as senior Carlos Lopez-Sosa is the only Rebel besides Birch and Dejean-Jones with a previous career start here. The other guys competing for rotation minutes will be sophomore guard Daquan Cook, redshirt freshman forward Demetris Morant and true freshmen forwards Jamal Aytes and Christian Wood.

At least a couple of those guys are going to emerge from the pack, but the majority of minutes will go to the transfers. Though Dejean-Jones was the first one to commit to UNLV, it was Birch and then Roscoe Smith who came along and convinced others to join them.

In addition to the daily work Birch did to get fellow Canadian and eventual No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett to join the Rebels, he also had a hand in convincing Roscoe Smith, Deville Smith, Kendrick and class of 2014 commit Goodluck Okonoboh that UNLV was the right place for them.

“I tell the recruits straight up, if you come here you’re going to have to work hard,” Birch said. “I keep it 100 with the recruits all the time.”

Once Roscoe Smith was on campus he also took a leadership role during recruiting visits. That it was guys who had spent a shorter amount of time on campus selling the program hardest says something about UNLV’s appeal to players looking for a second (or third) chance.

“They understand the same thing I’ve been through,” said Deville Smith.

Said Rice, “There’s credibility that comes with what a player like Khem or a player like Roscoe will say to a prospective student-athlete about his experiences at the institution. That brings a lot of credibility because a lot of these kids go back three or four years. … They all know each other.”

The same internal expectations exist but the national spotlight has mostly moved on to test other teams, leaving the Rebels to exist in the most anonymity they’ve had in nearly two years. Less scrutiny is a good thing for a team that struggled in the preseason and now must figure out how best to fit together these various pieces.

“Any time there are some unknowns it provides uncertainty and concern,” Rice said.

Uncertainty is natural right now. After all, the Rebels don’t play another team for real until tonight and it will be next week at the earliest that they do so at full strength.

Fans will expect UNLV to snap its four-year drought without an NCAA Tournament victory. Just getting into the field is the first step and that may be more difficult than in recent years.

Even though most of the newcomers have played college basketball before, there’s no guarantee they’ll play well together. Do the pieces fit? That’s the biggest question and only playing the games will provide an answer.

The Rebels, of course, believe they will come together. They believe in themselves, and they believe they’ve learned from last season’s mistakes.

That last part plus a new full-court press are as good a place as any to start.

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

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