Observations: UNLV pulled the trigger too early on coach Dave Rice

UNLV coach Dave Rice, who was fired Sunday, deserved to coach the rest of the season.

Firing coaches in the middle of a college basketball season never equates to any sort of success, but that’s just what the Runnin Rebels’ administration opted to do on Sunday when it parted ways with Rice, who was was 95-54 in his fifth season at UNLV.

A former UNLV player, the 47-year old Rice passed on the South Florida vacancy in 2014 to stay in Las Vegas and then was told by his superiors last spring that he would have this entire season to coach his team.

It didn’t happen.

The Runnin’ Rebels started out 8-2 overall with impressive wins over both Indiana and Oregon, but an 0-3 start to Mountain West play was too much for UNLV’s higher ups to stomach.

The issue now is this season all of a sudden becomes somewhat of a wash.

Interim head coach Todd Simon is now the point man moving forward for the Runnin Rebels, but Rice ultimately deserved a chance to coach his team the rest of the way. Despite a 9-7 start which has seen UNLV lose three consecutive games by a combined six points, this team is still far and away the most talented team in the Mountain West Conference and that would still give them an opportunity to advance to the NCAA Tournament by earning an automatic bid during championship week.

Rice was loyal to UNLV by not bolting for South Florida 22 months ago and it only would have been fair for him to have the chance to coach his team until this season’s conclusion.

Pitt has quietly played its way back to relevance: Just how good are the Panthers?

Nobody knows for sure, but winning the games you’re supposed to win is the first step needed to regain national relevance and that’s exactly what Pitt has done thus far.

Jamie Dixon’s squad is 14-1 overall and 3-0 in ACC play following Saturday’s road victory at Notre Dame and Pitt only currently has one ranked team (Louisville) on its schedule for the rest of January.

The Panthers were a bit of a forgotten team in the ACC entering this season after last year’s 19-15 campaign, but Dixon has quietly molded this group into a squad that has the requisites to overachieve.

Pitt has two All-ACC players — Mike Young and Jamel Artis — as well as a senior point guard in James Robinson who only has 12 turnovers this season in 423 minutes played.

It’s still too early to say how this team will fare when it goes toe-to-toe with the ACC’s elite, but Dixon’s meticulousness, ability to build habits, and augmented depth should be enough to get the Panthers back to the NCAA Tournament.

The buzz surrounding USC is warranted: Andy Enfield’s team had a program changing victory on Saturday night when it outlasted Arizona in a four-overtime thriller at the Galen Center, but the truth is the Trojans turned a corner before that.

USC gained tremendous confidence from a non-conference schedule that allowed it to enter the Pac-12 with an 11-2 record along with a strong sense of belief.

The Trojans waxed Washington State in its first conference game and then blew a 20-point lead in a loss at Washington eight days ago when Julian Jacobs — USC’s starting point guard and most indispensable player — left the game in the second half with an ankle injury.

Nevertheless this past weekend’s performances against both Arizona and Arizona State reiterates the fact that the Trojans have the talent, depth, and versatility to be a Top-25 team and compete for a NCAA bid.

Now comes the hard part: dealing with expectations.

USC is no longer going to sneak up on its opponents and has three consecutive road games at UCLA, Oregon, and Oregon State.

Will confidence and swagger travel?

We’ll find out soon enough.

This Just In

  • Xavier’s Edmond Sumner (concussion) still has no timetable for a return, Chris Mack told CBS Sports. Sumner has not played since Dec. 31.

UNLV coach Dave Rice (USATSI)
Dave Rice was 95-54 in his fifth season at UNLV. (USATSI)

This and That

  • The bright spot in Arizona’s 0-2 trip to Los Angeles this past weekend was the play of senior big man Kaleb Tarczewski. The 7-footer had missed time recently due to a foot injury, but posted back-to-back double-doubles against UCLA and USC while averaging 14.0 points and 12.0 rebounds in the two games. This is the best defensive big man in college basketball — and it may not be close.
  • It’s going to be real interesting to see what Mike Krzyzewski does with Duke’s lineup when Amile Jefferson returns. The senior power forward was clearly this team’s most valuable player before he went down with injury, but his absence has allowed freshman Brandon Ingram to slide to power forward and that’s made Duke a significantly more explosive team. The Blue Devils averaged 86.0 points with Jefferson in the starting lineup, but are averaging 90.6 points with Ingram at power forward and four of those games have come against high-major opponents.
  • Seton Hall is at an early crossroads. The Pirates were beaten by Creighton at home on Saturday and now face an arduous three-game stretch. Kevin Willard’s squad next travels to Providence then returns home to face Villanova before hitting the road against to take on Xavier. Seton Hall is 12-4 overall and 2-2 in Big East play.
  • The most underrated thing about Miami is how well it defends. In 14 games the Hurricanes are only surrendering an average of 64.7 points and have only given up an average of 55.0 points in two ACC games against Miami and Florida State. Jim Larranaga’s squad is 13-1 overall.
  • Baylor has an emerging piece in sophomore Terry Maston. The 6-7 forward had 13 points in Saturday’s win at Iowa State and has a combined 28 points in three Big 12 games. Maston is effective in screen and roll action while boasting good hands around the rim. This is another piece to watch for the Bears.
  • The unsung presence on Texas A&M is South Florida transfer Anthony Collins. The fifth-year transfer has tallied 21 assists to just three turnovers in the Aggies’ first three SEC games and has taken immense pressure off Alex Caruso in the back court. Billy Kennedy’s squad is 13-2 overall and 3-0 in SEC play.
  • Lorenzo Bonam is the X-Factor for Utah moving forward. The junior college transfer scored seven of the Utes’ final nine points including the game winning basket in Friday night’s win at Colorado all while giving Utah a perimeter threat to go with Jakob Poeltl. Bonam finished with 17 points against the Buffaloes and gave Larry Krystkowiak’s team what it desperately needed: a perimeter option capable of carrying the load similar to the way Delon Wright did at times last season.
  • Creighton’s Mo Watson is averaging 18.0 points and 7.5 assists through four Big East games. The Boston University transfer came to the Bluejays’ program to anchor a team in a power conference and he’s doing just that. Look for Watson’s name to gain more traction as conference play progresses.
  • St. John’s freshman Kassoum Yakwe is about to go on a tear. The 6-7 forward was inserted into the starting lineup this past Saturday against Marquette after the Red Storm’s starting center Yankuba Sima was sidelined with a hand injury and the Mali native responded with flying colors. Yakwe scored nine points, grabbed 11 rebounds, and blocked six shots in 32 minutes of work. This is a major building block for Chris Mullin moving forward.
  • We’re still about a month away from talking about potential bracketbusters, but hoops junkies everywhere should be studying Valpo. The Crusaders have eight juniors and seniors while already boasting wins at both Rhode Island and Oregon State. Bryce Drew’s team defends, rebounds, and shares the ball. This is the 12 seed that will give an opposing assistant coach nightmares in about 10 weeks.

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