Dave Rice knew he didn't need to overhaul the program when he became the coach at Nevada-Las Vegas last spring.
In fact, he walked into a great situation at his alma mater after spending the previous five seasons as an assistant at Mountain West Conference rival Brigham Young. Before leaving for Oklahoma, coach Lon Krueger led the Rebels to at least 21 wins and NCAA Tournament berths in four of the previous five seasons.
"The thing I was most impressed with coming in here was how well-coached these guys were," Rice said.
Still, Rice wanted UNLV to go back to its roots and play like it did in the glory days like 1991 when Jerry Tarkanian led the school to the national championship and Rice was one of the players. They weren't called the Rebels then. They were the Runnin' Rebels.
Rice has put the Runnin' back in Rebels this season are they are 17-3 as they get set to host New Mexico on Saturday night in a Mountain West Conference game. UNLV is No. 14 in the Associated Press poll, No. 7 in the RPI and No. 18 in the Pomeroy Ratings at KenPom.com.
UNLV is also 21st in the nation in adjusted tempo, playing at 71.6 possessions a game. That is up from 67.8 last season. The Rebels' highest average under Krueger was 69.9 in 2004-05, his first season after replacing the retired Charlie Spoonhour.
"It's been a transition by we're getting better offensively and we're better for longer periods of time," Rice said.
The style of play has certainly suited senior guard Chace Stanback as his 126.3 offensive rating ranks 31st in the nation and his 61.8 effective field goal percentage and 64.3 True Shooting Percentage are 58th and 59th. Stanback also leads UNLV in scoring with an average of 14.7 points a game.
"Chace can catch and shoot the three or he can post you up," Rice said. "He also makes a difference as a rebounder. He can hurt you in a lot of ways."
The biggest revelation for UNLV has been sophomore forward Mike Moser, who played sparingly at UCLA before transferring but has begun to develop his outside shot since joining the Rebels. He is averaging a double-double with 14.0 points and 11.4 rebounds a game. Moser is also eighth in the nation with 28.3 defensive rebounding percentage and his 12.3 offensive rebounding percentage ranks 111th.
"We knew Mike would be a great player but we did not know how quickly it would happen," Rice said. "He has a great work ethic. He's one of the first guys in the gym and one of the last ones to leave. He continues to get better and he plays with a lot of confidence. The way we play is good for Mike and the way Mike plays is good for us. He thinks every rebound is his, every loose ball is his."
UNLV's 113.4 offensive efficiency is 16th in the nation but the Rebels also play sticky defense as their 91.5 defensive efficiency ranks 38th. Junior guard Justin Hawkins is the key to UNLV's defense. Rice calls him "about as good an on-the-ball defender that you'll find," and Hawkins' 4.5 steal percentage is 30th nationally.
"Our staple will continue to be defense," Rice said. "We inherited a group of kids who are committed to that end of the floor. I've been impressed with how guys come to practice every day dedicated to playing defense. You don't always find that. They're a very coachable group that is making progress."
UNLV also has the depth to keep playing the up-tempo style all season as Rice usually employs a nine-man rotation.
"The way we play, the way we defend, the way we try to pressure all game and switch a lot and screen and play fast--you need to play more guys," Rice said. "We're fortunate enough to have a roster that's deep in talent."
The Mountain West is also deep in talent as all eight teams have overall records over .500 and at least 10 wins.
"It's like I keep saying, people across the country are starting to understand how good basketball is in the Mountain West Conference," Rice said. "It's a situation where teams in our league have become accustomed to winning. The coaching is good but the players are good, too. When you have a guy like Kawhi Leonard leave early and still see San Diego State having the kind of success it's having, it really shows how all of our programs have stepped up because of the culture of winning that has developed in our league."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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