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At his first team meeting after taking over as UNLV's coach last April, Dave Rice told the players that his goal was "to put the 'runnin' back in Runnin' Rebels." Rice's predecessor, Lon Kruger, called a lot of set plays and had a quick hook when players missed a shot or two, which made them less assertive.
"Coach Rice came and told us we were going to get up and down and that he was going to let us be aggressive," says junior guard Justin Hawkins. "It was what everyone wanted to hear."
The looser, more confident Rebels are 8--1, including a signature 90--80 win over then No. 1 North Carolina on Nov. 26. That impressive start has generated talk that this may be UNLV's most promising team since the early 1990s. "You can just feel it—things are getting going around Vegas," says sophomore forward Mike Moser. "And they should be. We are going to do some great things this year."
If the Rebels are able to win the Mountain West for the first time since 2000, fans will look back on two decisions that made the difference: The school's move to hire Rice after Kruger left for Oklahoma last April, and Moser's choice to transfer to UNLV from UCLA two seasons ago.
Rice, a role player on the Rebels' 1990 national title team who has kicked around as an assistant at five schools (most recently at BYU) was not the popular choice—former UNLV star Reggie Theus would have been the flashier hire—but he got the job.
"I had an advantage having been in the [Mountain West] conference. I knew what kind of team Coach Kruger left," says Rice, who was also an assistant at UNLV from 1994 to 2001. "I knew there was the talent here and the kind of kids who would be committed on defense and then capable of really pushing the ball and playing as fast as we can."
The school's marketing campaign for the season was titled "Let's Run," but a more accurate slogan would be "Let's Shoot." UNLV has attempted about eight more three-pointers per game than it did last season, which is no surprise considering that Rice was the architect of the BYU offense built around gunner Jimmer Fredette.
"Be aggressive, run and the freedom to shoot: That's the plan," Moser says. "We love it."
The 6'8", 195-pound forward from Portland played sparingly his freshman season, at UCLA in 2009--10. He didn't like the Bruins' slow tempo on offense and says, "I couldn't see myself succeeding under [Ben Howland's] coaching style there." He met another UCLA transfer, senior Chace Stanback, on his visit to UNLV and became sold on the school's success with transfers. (There are currently five on the roster.)
Already blessed with long arms and great leaping ability, Moser added 15 pounds of muscle during his redshirt year. Against North Carolina the added strength served him well, as he had 16 points, a career-best six assists and 18 rebounds, three more than the combined total of Tar Heels stars (and presumed NBA lottery picks) John Henson and Tyler Zeller.