Would the Rebels be Better as an “Ugly” Team?

The Rebels have built their identity around running, but would the team benefit from slowing things down?

Rice1Ever since Dave Rice took over as head coach at UNLV before last season, he’s done everything in his power to create an identity for the program. And that identity is built around one principle: Run.

It’s the basis of just about everything Rice wants his team to be. He coaches fast breaks and transition offense at every practice, he recruits players suited for an uptempo style — heck, the official marketing slogans the past two years have been “Let’s Run” and “Run as One,” respectively.

But as we enter the final stretch of the season, it might be time to ask if the Rebels would benefit from slowing down a bit. Saturday’s 77-72 loss at Boise State was an eye opener, as the Broncos went toe-to-toe in transition with UNLV and proved to be the more capable team.

It wasn’t a new development, as running hasn’t produced very well for the Rebels this season. UNLV averages just 0.961 points per possession in transition, which, for all the elite athletes lining the roster, basically ranks in the middle of the pack nationally.

Why hasn’t the transition attack developed the way Rice envisioned? There are a few reasons. First and foremost, Anthony Bennett is the only exceptional fast-break player in the regular rotation. Katin Reinhardt is good, mostly as a stretch shooter. And after that, there isn’t a single player who grades out above average in transition.

And for all the great things Anthony Marshall has done this season, running the break isn’t one of his talents. His turnover rate of 27.3 percent in transition makes him more of a liability than a shot creator, and if your point guard can’t operate in the open court, that makes running a challenge.

Now that we’re 22 games into the season, it might be time to stop waiting for a sudden turnaround in the fast break department. Square peg, round hole, etc. So would embracing an uglier brand of basketball improve the team’s chances of making a deep run in the NCAA tournament?

I think it could. The halfcourt offense has been much more productive this season, in relative terms. The Rebels average 0.883 points per possession when they work their set offense, which ranks in the top 50 nationally. And that doesn’t even include all the quick shots the Rebels take that don’t technically count as transition attempts — eliminate those shots, decrease the tempo, and the efficiency will improve.

And in the halfcourt, the Rebs turnover rate is 17.1 percent, a good tick better than their 18.8 percent mark in transition. Just think about that. When the Rebels run (presumably because they outnumber the defense in transition), they actually turn the ball over more often than they do against set defenses. That’s a sloppy fast break.

Offense is just one half of the equation, however. Because if there’s anything these Rebels do well, it’s defend in the halfcourt. Opposing teams are posting 0.742 points per possession against the Rebels’ halfcourt D, which is top-30 nationally. And that number includes all the games played without Khem Birch at the beginning of the season — the team has been even better since he became eligible. Make no mistake about it, the strength of this team is its halfcourt defense.

The elements for building an amazing halfcourt team are in place: They turn the ball over less and score more efficiently in the halfcourt. Opponents can’t score against their halfcourt defense, which is anchored by elite defensive talents at point guard and center. And their size in the frontcourt would be better utilized with a slower pace, as Birch is a non-factor when the Rebels run.

By embracing a defense-first identity, with a slow pace and an emphasis on exploiting their size advantage, the Rebels would be playing to their strengths and minimizing their deficiencies.

And yet, they continue to play at the fastest pace in the Mountain West (adjusted tempo rate of 70.2, according to KenPom.com). That’s because this is all easier said than done.

Just as you can lay out an argument for slowing things down, there are equally good arguments for keeping the foot on the pedal. As mentioned above, Rice works on fast breaks in every practice — it’s been absolutely drilled into these players from Day 1, and throwing that out the window with a dozen or so games left in the season would present a whole new set of challenges.

And Rice isn’t just thinking about this year’s team. He’s got an entire program to worry about. Read this Q&A with Malik Pope. And this one with Stanley Johnson. And this one with recently committed point guard Kendall Smith. Know what they all have in common? Each kid says he’s interested in UNLV because of the fast pace and the freedom Rice gives his players on offense. It’s exciting, and it’s a huge lure for recruiting elite talent. It doesn’t make sense to give that up for a short-term fix this season.

So don’t expect the Rebels to turn into Florida State or Wisconsin or Wyoming overnight. But don’t be surprised if Rice pulls in the reins a bit as the team edges closer to the postseason. By playing slower, the Rebels might be able to extend their season a little longer.

Related content:
Mountain West Power Rankings: Week 5
UNLV Suffers Defensive Letdown in Loss

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