With a full 24 hours to process UNLV’s season-ending loss to Cal in the first round of the NCAA tournament, it’s time to begin the post-mortem process. Over the coming days, we’ll discuss what went wrong, how it can be fixed, and what the future holds for the Rebels.
But first, let’s start by asking a key question: Was this a successful season for the UNLV basketball program?
Coach Dave Rice has stated that his ultimate goal is to win a national championship, and despite their mid-major conference status, the Rebels consider themselves a national program with legitimate title aspirations. So a successful season for UNLV requires a little more achievement than what would pass for a successful season at, say, Stony Brook or Holy Cross.
If you ask me (and why else would you be coming to RunRebs.com, right?), there are six types of seasons when grading a big-time college basketball program like UNLV:
Level 1: Banner season
Quite literally, a season that ends with a team hanging a significant banner in the rafters — for a national program like UNLV, we’re talking about an NCAA championship or Final Four banner. The kind of campaign that can sustain a program for years by attracting blue chip recruits, cultivating huge fan interest and generating massive revenue for the school. This is the rarefied air of the 1989-90 and 90-91 Runnin’ Rebels, who won titles and became a cultural touchstone for a generation of young ballers.
Level 2: Successful step forward
A season that sees the program achieve some smaller, more attainable milestones (conference championship, NCAA tournament wins, etc.) and also moves the team forward for the future, through player development and the attraction of solid recruits. Fans of the school would look back on this season fondly and remember how it led to bigger and better things.
Level 3: Treadmill season
The team more or less lives up to expectations, without any significant achievement or signature moments. There is no greatness, but no harm is done to the program’s reputation. The status quo is maintained, and supporters generally adopt a wait-and-see approach for the next year.
Level 4: Disappointment
The team fails to live up to expectations, either due to underperformance from players, coaching missteps, off-court distractions, etc. A talented team that fails to qualify for the postseason or loses major ground to a conference rival would fall into this category. These years can lead to lean recruiting classes, current players transferring out and people questioning the coach’s job security.
Level 5: Step backward
In a major conference, this would be a team that is overmatched on most levels — on the court, in the coaches’ room, and on the recruiting circuit. The team is expected to be bad and follows through. An uninspiring, last-place season. If the coach isn’t fired, he’s definitely put on alert.
Level 6: Blow it up
An out-and-out failure on every level. The team is not competitive at all and suffers through a series of demoralizing losses. The players tune out the coaches, a star player is suspended, major NCAA violations are announced, etc. Basically, everything that can go wrong, goes wrong. These seasons end with the coaches being fired and the program starting over from scratch in terms of recruiting. This type of campaign can set the program back for three or four years. Think about the Matt Doherty era at North Carolina, Billy Gillispie’s final year at Kentucky, or — and this situation definitely deserves a category of its own — the Dave Bliss disaster at Baylor.
So where does UNLV fit into that mix? Obviously there’s no a cut-and-dry answer — only banner seasons and blow-it-up seasons are absolute. For the Rebels, I could see people making valid arguments for Levels 2, 3 or 4. There were elements of each mixed into this campaign, which leads me to peg them at Level 3 — a treadmill season.
Before the year, I think most fans expected the team to win 25-30 games, contend for a conference championship, make the NCAA tournament and win some games once they got there. They hit all those marks, except for the NCAA wins. That points to treadmill status.
Level 2 components included Anthony Bennett’s emergence as a superstar, which will certainly help improve the program’s cache when it comes to recruiting. But there were disappointing aspects as well, like the team not playing up to its collective talent level in too many games. Rice also came under criticism for some of his moves.
In the long run, I don’t think the program will be hindered by what happened this year, but it won’t propel the team forward, either. Next year will see Rice at the controls of a team more suited to his vision and supposedly better equipped to play the style he wants, which very much plays into the “wait-and-see” criteria for this being a treadmill season.
For comparison’s sake, I would have labeled 2011-12 as a solid Level 2 — a successful step forward. In Rice’s first season, he installed an entertaining system, energized the fan base, developed Mike Moser into a star and beat the No. 1 team in the country. The fact that the Rebels weren’t able to build on that this season is unfortunate, but I don’t think we can call it a disappointment.
But neither was it a success.
What do you think? Comments are open below.
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