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March 21, 2013

Zoned out

This season began with more expectations than any Runnin' Rebel team has been saddled with since the glory years of UNLV hoops.

Head coach Dave Rice brought into the program what many believed was the finest recruiting class in the program's illustrious history. They were being coupled with a returning group that had already helped develop a thirst for winning at such a high level.

On Thursday, it became apparent that the Rebels have come well short of meeting the lofty, maybe unfair, expectations. UNLV was bounced from the NCAA Tournament without earning a victory for the fourth straight year, giving seniors Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins the dubious distinction as the only Rebels to go 0-4 in the event.

"I think about Justin Hawkins and Anthony Marshall, two guys who are the first two players since 1991 to go to four consecutive NCAA tournaments," Rice said. "You think about the tradition of the UNLV program, and yet the program went 15 years and only went to the NCAA tournament two times. For Justin Hawkins and Anthony Marshall to do that, to get us there four consecutive years is a big deal.

"We are in no way content. I told the returning guys, think about how you feel right now and think about all the work we have between now and next season."

Next season couldn't come fast enough for UNLV fans that will once again be yearning to finally get Rice his first win in the NCAA's, which is ultimately where you are judged as a player, coach and program.

Right or wrong, it's the grandest of stages that determines success or failure. Rice wouldn't want it either way.

ZONED OUT - The great coaches know when it's time to make a change. California's Mike Montgomery typically isn't a "zone" type of guy. His teams throughout the years have played it sparingly.

Against the Rebels, you would have thought that Montgomery was the captain of the Syracuse zone that Jim Boeheim has mastered over time.

It's probably not a defensive tactic that the Cal coach is comfortable in, as he said afterward the last time he played so much zone was when he was head coach at Montana nearly 30 years ago.

"The zones helped us this year. We've had two or three big games where we've played mostly man in the first half and then second half gone to a zone," Montgomery said.

"We've played teams before where - and I'm not saying this is that situation - where (the opponent) just ripped us in man and then we've gone zone and all of a sudden they just stood. You've always got help in zone. It changes the mentality some.

UNLV did get open looks against the Bears zone, but were only able to capitalize against it in the first half when the Rebels went 5-of-11 from beyond the 3-point stripe. The second half was a disaster for UNLV, going 1-of-9.

Rice said, "We worked on zone all week long. Coach Montgomery has played more zone of late than he did the first time we played him. They were aggressive in the zone and we just didn't make enough plays against that zone."

But this was the tale for the Rebels since the beginning of the season, so it wasn't surprising that they would have one good half of shooting and then struggle for one. There's no reason to think that a team would be able to change a characteristic its been battling all year.

END OF AN ERA - UNLV has had a couple players that have, seemingly, been a part of the Rebel program for decades in Marshall and Hawkins. Opposing fans must be thinking that their eligibility had to have run out a long time ago.

Well, it finally has for a backcourt that has been through it all with the Rebels. Through thick and thin, those two have seen the top of success and some harsh failures during their time.

At the end of the day, though, they can look back and be very proud of their time as Rebels. Marshall continued to improve throughout his career despite being one the most criticized UNLV guards in recent memory.

"For me, Justin and Quintrell (Thomas), it's our last time as Runnin' Rebels. It's very disappointing. So we just have to motivate the team to come back next year stronger."

However, it's not just the three seniors that the Rebels will be losing. Star freshman, Anthony Bennett, is all but gone to the NBA Lottery, while junior Mike Moser may also test the waters for a second straight season, which would force him out of the program.

Turnover could be the theme of this offseason for the Rebels, so it will be up to Rice to bring in the players to keep the UNLV program on the upswing.

"We're all disappointed that we didn't perform better today," Rice stated. "But the future is extremely bright and we didn't play well today, but with the way recruiting has gone, with the way a number of our guys have grown up, we're excited. We will be back.

"It was a tough one today. We're going to have to live with this for a while. But it's also going to serve as motivation for us moving forward."

Despite all the losses, expectations are not going to lower going into next season. That's where the Rebel program is at this point.



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