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October 1, 2014

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How can UNLV rebound from this season?

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV coach Dave Rice reacts as a call goes against his team during their game against New Mexico Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

MWC Tournament: UNLV vs. San Diego State

UNLV associate head coach Heath Schroyer puts his head in his hand during their Mountain West Conference semifinal game against San Diego State Friday, March 14, 2014 at the Thomas & Mack Center. The #8 ranked San Diego State Aztecs won 59-51 to advance to the finals. Launch slideshow »

This story was first published in the March 23 issue of The Sunday.

UNLV basketball coach Dave Rice says he always looks in the mirror first when it comes to figuring out how to get UNLV back on the right track. There have been issues at various times with personnel, effort and execution, but that ultimately all falls on the head coach, and Rice knows that.

So after the first year since 2006 without a postseason trip, change is coming, or at least that’s the plan.

Some areas that need to be addressed:

Get offensive. Whether it gets fixed with Rice changing his philosophy, listening to his other coaches more or simply the addition of a knockdown shooter, the Rebels must add some life to their stagnant offense. The defense has been good enough to win most of the time, but when UNLV needs a basket late in a game, it has struggled for a good look.

Don’t reinforce bad habits. There’s a fine line between destroying players’ confidence and giving them too much freedom. Rice hasn’t figured that part out yet.

He wants his guys not to worry about getting chastised for every mistake, but sometimes discipline is exactly what they need to make themselves, and the team, better.

Recruit character. The keys here are both character and system. UNLV should take fewer risks on talented players with checkered pasts. Also, there’s a considerable lack of role players coming, or at least sticking around, during Rice’s tenure.

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Rebels' bumpy ride: A look back at what went wrong

It was an up-and-down 2013-14 season for UNLV basketball, with far more downs than ups leading to no postseason trip for the first time since 2006. Here’s a look at some of the pivotal dates that led to this offseason of turmoil:

Nov. 1 — UNLV loses its opening exhibition game to Division II Dixie State. The game features many of the issues — missed free throws, late-game execution — that would plague the team throughout the season.

Nov. 12 — Fans start walking out en masse with 10 minutes remaining in a 21-point home loss to UC Santa Barbara. The Rebels seem to give up during the game.

Dec. 7 — Even the early-season positives come in defeat, as UNLV notches a moral victory with a 5-point loss at then-No. 2 Arizona. It’s promising yet leaves UNLV without a marquee nonconference victory.

Jan. 8 — The Jan. 4 home loss to Air Force is bad enough, but following that with a home defeat to UNR is more than some can bear. The Rebels drop to 1-2 in Mountain West play.

Jan. 15 — One week later at the Pit, UNLV plays the best game of its season in a 3-point victory against New Mexico. This would turn out to be the high point of the season.

Feb. 22 — A loss three days earlier ends the Rebels’ chance to compete for the league title. Now UNLV celebrates a road win at Boise State only to have it ripped away after video review. Insult to injury.

March 14 — San Diego State ends UNLV’s disappointing season with a third victory against the Rebels. They missed the NIT and declined other postseason options.

March 16 — The first of many pieces start falling as the Rebels announce leading scorer Bryce Dejean-Jones, a redshirt junior, will not return to the program.

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Three things to watch in the offseason

New coaches. Dave Rice said shortly after the season that he would like to add a position, a special assistant to the head coach. And he’s also expected to have at least one regular staff opening with Heath Schroyer’s departure to be head coach at the University of Tennessee-Martin. So expect UNLV to bring in one veteran X’s and O’s coach as well as an expert recruiter.

Who’s leaving? We know Bryce Dejean-Jones won’t spend his final season at UNLV. Who else? Juniors Khem Birch, Roscoe Smith and Jelan Kendrick are possible departures, as are freshmen Kendall Smith and Demetris Morant. It’s going to be another year with a lot of turnover.

Who’s going to improve? Depending on those departures, there may not be a lot of guys coming back. Of those who are, Deville Smith could thrive as a shooting guard if he doesn’t have to handle point guard duties. And a summer spent on post moves could do wonders for Christian Wood, who’s still only 18.

•••

Reasons for optimism: Help is on the way

The recruiting class of Rashad Vaughn, Dwayne Morgan and Goodluck Okonoboh — three of the nation's top 40 players for the class of 2014 — could immediately impact the program.

Together they form arguably the greatest recruiting class in program history, and there will probably be three or four more players joining the team this offseason, too, including senior transfer Cody Doolin from San Francisco. The counter is that talent has never been the issue in the Rice era. He and his staff have been able to get players in but have struggled to get the most out of them. So until we see different, there are going to be skeptics.

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

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