With the 2015-16 campaign having officially come to an end for UNLV, it’s time to start dissecting what went right and what went wrong this season. I’m a positive guy, so let’s start by spotlighting what worked in Part 1 of this season breakdown.
What went right
UNLV never turned into the kind of full-court press machine that Dave Rice envisioned, but that doesn’t mean the defense was ineffective. The Rebels’ defense was actually the team’s greatest strength in 2015-16, as their collection of long, quick, versatile athletes made it difficult for opponents to penetrate or get open looks.
For the season, UNLV finished 74th in KenPom.com’s adjusted defense rating, but that ranking is skewed by the team’s collapse over the final month of the season, when injuries set in and wrecked the roster. For most of the year, the Rebels were comfortably rated in the top 15-20 range, and that matched up with what I saw on the court. Even with the devastating injury situation, UNLV still finished a respectable 45th in the nation in points allowed per possession (0.84) and 31st in halfcourt defensive efficiency (0.81 points allowed per possession).
With assistant coach Stacey Augmon orchestrating the defense for the first time, the 15-16 Rebels also solved an issue that had nagged the squad under Dave Rice, as they forced 15.2 turnovers per game. That ranked 10th in the nation and was a far cry from recent UNLV defenses, which hadn’t forced more than 10.8 turnovers per game in either of the last two seasons.
Patrick McCaw was the key piece, as the 6-foot-7 sophomore blossomed into the best defensive player in the Mountain West and one of the best in the country. He hounded opposing ball handlers, made dozens of game-changing plays and finished fifth nationally in steals with 2.5 per game. Freshman Derrick Jones also turned into a defensive monster over the course of the season, as opponents shot just 25.4 percent when being guarded by the 6-foot-7 swingman. When McCaw and Jones were on the floor together, with Stephen Zimmerman behind them to protect the rim (2.0 blocks per game), UNLV could boast a defense as stingy and disruptive as any in the nation.
After years of vowing to install a fast-paced offense, it’s somewhat ironic that Dave Rice was fired just when the Rebels started running again. UNLV averaged 77.2 offensive possessions per game, which ranked seventh in the nation:
Possessions per game
1. Citadel — 83.0
2. Washington — 80.8
3. Maine — 80.7
4. Marshall — 79.8
5. Wisconsin-Green Bay — 79.6
6. Nebraska Omaha — 78.6
7. UNLV — 77.2
The Rebels also ranked 12th in KenPom.com’s adjusted tempo stat, and they racked up 571 transition possessions, the 11th-most in the country. And when UNLV got out into the open court, they generally cashed in, scoring 1.124 points per possession. Players like McCaw, Jones and Ben Carter thrived in transition and made UNLV’s fast-break attack more exciting than it has been in years.
As a freshman in 2014-15, McCaw got better as the year went on and ended the season as UNLV’s best overall player. He continued that upward trajectory this season, taking on more of a load at both ends of the court and finishing the campaign as the unquestioned leader on the court.
Except for one stretch in late December when McCaw became too passive, he embraced the role of being the No. 1 option on offense. He made 36.6 percent of his 3-pointers (best on the team) and led the Rebels with 14.3 points per game, and he also dished out 3.9 assists. But McCaw’s real bread and butter was at the other end of the court, as the ball-hawking guard blossomed into the rightful Defensive Player of the Year in the conference. In addition to his 2.5 steals per game, he also held his defensive assignments to 36.2-percent shooting.
It was a performance impressive enough to make McCaw a legitimate NBA prospect, and it’s a credit to both McCaw for his work ethic and the Rebels’ coaching staff for putting him in position to succeed.
Unlike in recent years, which ended with players not giving full effort and sometimes even fighting with each other, internal conflicts never really impacted this team’s spirit. Stephen Zimmerman had some cryptic quotes about off-court issues midway through the season, but other than that, the team stayed together through some pretty extraordinary circumstances. They played hard for Dave Rice, continued playing hard for Todd Simon, and played even harder when injuries and NCAA edicts began stripping away the team’s depth down the stretch.
The group of tough-minded iron men that finished the season certainly earned the respect of fans and the media.
This one is not set in stone, because a new coach could choose to release the incoming recruits from their letters of intent. But if UNLV keeps its class together, it will be another nice talent infusion for the program. Before he left, Rice secured commitments from several players who should contribute immediately, like multifaceted wing Justin Jackson and hard-charging point guard Jaylen Fisher. And the class is rounded out by combo guard Christian Vital and forward Carlos Johnson, grinders who project as three- and four-year program players— the exact type that UNLV needs to build around in order to achieve sustained success in the Mountain West.
If that class ends up enrolling at UNLV, the next coach (whoever he is) will probably end up thanking Rice for providing such solid groundwork for the rebuilding project.