It's no accident every story written about first-year UNLV coach Dave Rice last season celebrated the Rebels' long-overdue return to the blistering pace that was once a trademark of the program's glory days.
Rice carefully crafted that message, highlighting UNLV's freewheeling style and rich tradition as much as possible because he believed that was his best recruiting sales pitch.
He vowed to put the "Runnin'" back in Rebels during his introductory press conference. He spearheaded a clever marketing campaign that fit the new rapid-fire style. And he proved the "Let's Run" billboards, print ads and TV spots were more than a mere hollow slogan by giving his players the freedom to push the ball and to shoot early in the shot clock every chance they had.
"Winning will always be the most important thing on the court, but in our first year I really thought if winning was 1A, then style of play was 1B," Rice said. "I thought it was important for us to brand our program, to talk about being the Runnin' Rebels again and to back it up."
Even though the prospects Rice pursued this year weren't even born until well after UNLV's most recent Final Four appearance in 1991, the idea of restoring the program's former style and swagger still resonated with recruits. UNLV signed a consensus top 10 recruiting class this year and landed a trio of big-time transfers, raising hopes that the Rebels can be a major presence in college basketball again as soon as next season.
Katin Reinhardt, a sweet-shooting consensus top 50 guard, was the first marquee recruit to buy into Rice's plan. Coveted Pittsburgh transfer Khem Birch and McDonald's All-American Anthony Bennett followed suit in the coming months. Now the roster is such an embarrassment of riches that Rice has broached the idea of redshirting with recent signee Savon Goodman, a rarity for a top 75 prospect.
What sparked interest in UNLV for many of those players was the Rebels' stunning 90-80 victory over top-ranked North Carolina last November. Between the tempo of the game, the caliber of opponent and the sight of throngs of red-clad fans pouring onto the court to celebrate afterward, the victory served as a nationally televised two-hour showcase for Rice's vision for UNLV basketball.
"I saw how they were playing, and I was like, 'Wow,'" Birch said. "They were running up and down, rebounding and scoring, and I was like, 'That's the kind of system I like. That's the type of team I want to play for.'"
With all-conference forward Mike Moser, slashing point guard Anthony Marshall and defensive stopper Justin Hawkins returning and a glut of new talent set to arrive, the toughest challenge Rice may face next season is keeping his players happy. He's dealt with playing time issues as candidly as possible, telling Goodman and one or two other recruits there's a chance they may redshirt because there simply won't be enough minutes to go around.
"I've been very, very, very candid about that," Rice said. "I knew throughout the recruiting process that there would be a chance I might lose guys, but I was not going to have those discussions at the start of the season. I needed to have them in April, May and June and even earlier in the recruiting process."
It's staggering the talent Rice and his staff have collected in such a short time because UNLV hadn't recruited at this level since the Tarkanian era. Rice's predecessor Lon Kruger stabilized the program and went to three NCAA tournaments in his final four seasons, but that success came via under-the-radar recruits and transfers seeking a second chance.
When Rice left his assistant coaching gig at BYU to return to his alma mater last year, he inherited a dream scenario. A winning foundation was in place, construction on a state-of-the-art $14 million practice facility was underway and 11 players from Kruger's 2010-11 NCAA tournament team were returning, enabling Rice to focus on future classes rather than scrambling to fill holes in his current roster.
"We would not be having any of the success we're having without the job Lon did," Rice said. "Lon left me a very good situation. I give him a lot of credit. I'd say it if it weren't the case, but in this case it's the truth."
Of course, Rice also deserves credit for assembling a staff capable of capitalizing on those advantages.
Justin Hutson, a highly regarded San Diego State assistant, had already shown a knack for uncovering under-recruited California prospects such as Kawhi Leonard, Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley. Heath Schroyer, formerly Wyoming's coach, brought head coaching experience and East Coast recruiting connections. And Stacey Augmon delivered instant credibility, having starred on UNLV's lone national title team and played for 15 seasons in the NBA.
One of the staff's first primary targets was Reinhardt, a skilled point guard from Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif. Whereas Kruger's staff had shown only cursory interest in Reinhardt, Rice called within hours of learning Reinhardt had backed out of an early commitment to USC in May of his junior year to explore other options.
To Rice, getting Reinhardt not only filled a need but sent a message. Outdueling the likes of Arizona, Baylor, Gonzaga and Syracuse for a decorated recruit from one of Southern California's most prestigious basketball programs enhanced UNLV's reputation in a talent-rich region Rice sees as critical to his program's recruiting success.
What appealed to Reinhardt most about UNLV was not only the tradition and the fast break-oriented attack but also the chance to develop under Rice.
"Seeing what Jimmer Fredette was able to do under Coach Rice (at BYU), the trust Coach Rice had in Jimmer and the freedom Jimmer had to shoot and pass, that really stuck out to me," Reinhardt said. "He was the best college basketball player in the country."
If Fredette's success under Rice caught Reinhardt's attention, then seeing Moser thrive with UNLV played a similar role in Birch's decision to come to Las Vegas.
Unhappy in Pittsburgh's structured offense despite starting his final six games for the Panthers, Birch decided to see if he could find a school that was a better fit. The former five-star forward had no prior relationship with any of the UNLV coaches, but what he'd seen from the Rebels against North Carolina persuaded him to give them a chance.
Birch was all but certain he'd fill Florida's need for a power forward after visiting that campus but his trip to UNLV in January caused him to reconsider. He liked the new practice facility, he connected quickly with Augmon and it was easy for him to identify with the way Moser blossomed into an NBA prospect after transferring from UCLA.
"Now I don't hear from him, which is good because it means he's happy," said Mike George, Birch's former AAU coach with CIA Bounce. "And when I do talk to him, he's always like, 'Man, this is the best decision I've ever made. For the first time in his life, he made his own decision and he's completely comfortable with it."
Birch's presence on the roster aided UNLV's pursuit of Bennett, his former AAU teammate who attended Las Vegas-based high school hoops powerhouse Findlay Prep.
UNLV hadn't managed to take advantage of its proximity to Findlay Prep prior to Rice's arrival, but the new Rebels coach made Bennett his top priority this spring, especially after it became clear No. 1 overall recruit Shabazz Muhammad was likely headed elsewhere. Already comfortable with the players and staff as a result of his proximity to the school, Bennett chose UNLV over Florida, Kentucky and Oregon in May, a decision his AAU coach admits the forward may not have made under the previous regime.
"I don't think he'd have gone there," George said. "I think he'd have considered it, but the way that coach Rice is coaching, they just push the ball up the floor, they allow a certain level of freedom. And then Khem being there as well? Everything kind of fit together."
There's a perception in basketball circles that this is a once-in-a-generation class for UNLV, a flash in the pan the Rebels may struggle to duplicate. Rice politely but vehemently disagrees with that theory, instead listing several factors he believes will help him sustain the program's recruiting efforts going forward.
He cites the allure of Las Vegas as both a basketball and entertainment capital. He cites the ability of his staff to identify top players early and develop relationships with them. And he cites the appeal of playing for a tradition-rich program hoping to run its way back to the top of college basketball's hierarchy.
"I don't think we had any kind of magic dust or anything," Rice said. "I think we'll continue to have success."
If so, then it may not be long before the streets of Las Vegas are awash in UNLV gear, the Rebels are challenging for Final Four berths and Sin City becomes a marquee college basketball destination again.