LAS VEGAS – After most losses this year Dave Rice starts his postgame press conference with some form of "proud of our guys". Following UNLV’s 60-58 defeat at the hands of San Diego State, Rice was no different.
"Extremely proud of our group for how hard we played," Rice started his postgame presser. "I thought after the initial start to the game, where we gave up too many offensive rebounds and had four turnovers to start the game, we settled down and did a much better job."
Typically, it comes off as coach speak. Rice isn’t one to change his emotions, especially with the media. He doesn’t get too high after wins and doesn’t sink low after losses. He’s as even keel as a college coach can be.
But tonight it felt like more than just a standard line. UNLV started the game with seven healthy scholarship players. The losses have piled up.
Daquan Cook tore an ACL before the season started. Kendall Smith was granted his release after playing just two games this year. Then Rashad Vaughn went down with a torn meniscus. The next game saw Dantley Walker's season likely end with a sprained MCL.
Early in the second half Wednesday night, the brightest part of UNLV’s season dimmed. Pat McCaw caught the side of Chris Wood’s head to the face. The freshman guard fell down and stayed down. He has concussion-like symptoms and will be re-evaluated Thursday.
In the last five games McCaw is averaging 16.2 points, 2.2 assists and 2.4 steals. He’s been the most important Rebel all season and recently became the co-number one option on offense with Chris Wood.
But he was done for the stretch run. Despite JJ O’Brien’s 22 points on 11 of 19 shooting and the Aztecs 5 of 6 shooting from three in the second half, UNLV held San Diego State to .95 points per possession. That’s well below the Aztecs’ Mountain West average of 1.02.
Plus UNLV scored .92 points per possession, better than the Aztecs conference-leading .89 defensive points per possession. UNLV did enter the night fourth in the Mountain West, scoring 1.07 points per possession in conference games.
"I think we played a good game. Obviously they’re a really good basketball team, and we’ve had to battle through some adversity – we were down to six scholarship players in this game – and we played a two-point game (against one of the best teams in the conference)," senior guard Cody Doolin said.
But it was another performance that saw the Rebels post good or even great efficiency numbers but come up with a loss. That’s why UNLV is fifth in the conference in efficiency differential, but seventh in the standings. They play well enough to be in games, but not well enough to win.
This season is a disappointment. At 16-14 (7-10 Mountain West), UNLV will be playing on the first day of the conference tourney. Since upsetting third-ranked Arizona just before Christmas, UNLV has gone 8-10 with just one winning streak.
But this team is still fun to watch.
McCaw has been brilliant all season. Wood throws down thunderous dunks, and he makes them look too easy. Cody Doolin hasn’t been a consistent threat to score, but when he finds himself with nowhere to go in the lane he finds a way out with floaters and flips at the basket.
But it was his shot that got blocked by Skylar Spencer with 47 seconds to play that helped San Diego State snag a two-possession lead.
"He’s such a good shot blocker – I give him a lot of credit – he makes you think about it. He’s quick off his feet, and he jumps late. I had some success going at him a few times throughout the game, but he really effects a lot of shots out there," Doolin said.
Doolin finished with 12 points (6/10 shooting), four assists and no turnovers.
Dwayne Morgan has been fun in the last three games where his potential has finally started to shine through the cracks. When he can stay on the floor – he finished with four fouls – he can be a difference maker. The freshman had 13 points on six shots; if he could eliminate the fouling and his desire to shoot long twos, he’d be a true asset.
Goodluck Okonoboh has been tremendously enjoyable inside. He and Jelan Kendrick stuffed Winston Shepard twice at the rim to preserve a 51-50 UNLV lead with less than five minutes to play.
Even Kendrick has become part of the highlights, as the senior has had some terrific passes to Chris Wood in transition the last few games. He finished with five assists and two blocks tonight.
Finally, Dave Rice. Yes, the coach that fans wish wasn’t the coach has been fun. His defensive strategy to switch every screen against Boise State held the Broncos and Derrick Marks to their least-efficient offensive performance of the conference season.
Two weeks later he altered his defense again to shut down Wyoming’s Larry Nance, who also had his least efficient night against UNLV.
He may not be the coach to take UNLV back to the Final Four, but he’s certainly not the coach you fire after a 17-14 regular season filled with injuries, especially when efficiency numbers suggest this team should have more wins this season.
Rice might get one more shot at Steve Fisher and San Diego State. As the bracket sits now, UNLV would play Nevada in the opening round, with the winner destined for a matchup with two-seeded San Diego State.
The Aztecs are a much better matchup for UNLV than Colorado State or Utah State, who can surround an excellent post up player (J.J. Avila or David Collette) with shooters. Boise State, which UNLV has proven it can slow down, and San Diego State present the most winnable matchups for the Rebels among the top four.
But if Pat McCaw is out for the tournament, UNLV probably won't make it past Wednesday.