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Rebels hit rock bottom after latest embarrassing loss

February 26, 2017 07:22 PM
Marvin Menzies’ first season as coach will finish as the worst season in UNLV history.
© USA Today Sports Images

Commentary by Matt Youmans

VSiN senior editor

It’s unfair to throw the blame at Marvin Menzies and leave it at that. There’s much more to the story. The depressing state of UNLV basketball is an elaborate tale with several villains.

Never expect the guilty parties to step forward and admit their mistakes. The fools who made this mess are hiding in the background and hoping Menzies, through some sort of miracle, can clean it up.

It’s not going to happen anytime soon.

In the aftermath of two colossal embarrassments in a four-day span, the Rebels have hit rock bottom. Menzies’ first season as coach will finish as the worst season in UNLV history, and he’s not hiding from that.

“We’re bad,” Menzies said Saturday after his team was run out of the Thomas & Mack Center in a 94-58 loss to Nevada. “This is very painful, and it’s a hard pill to swallow.”

In their past nine games, the Rebels are 0-9 and 1-7-1 against the spread. The oddsmakers have been slow to recognize how bad Menzies’ team has become. Earlier in the week, UNLV was handed a 23-point whipping by Air Force, the 10th-place team in a terrible Mountain West.

This is a full-blown fiasco. It’s the result of a dubious decision to fire a coach midseason and conduct arguably the most aimless coaching search in the history of college basketball.

The primary villains are UNLV athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy and school president Len Jessup. That discombobulated duo could not wait to fire Dave Rice. Kunzer-Murphy eagerly dismissed Rice on Jan. 10, 2016, although she had no good plan to replace him.

Under Rice, the Rebels were recruiting at their highest level since the Jerry Tarkanian era. Rice had no problems acquiring talent and sending players to the NBA. He did have problems coaching those players and winning meaningful games.

He was a victim of his recruiting successes and high expectations. Influential boosters and angry fans were tired of mediocrity and underachieving teams. The frustration was warranted. After losses to Fresno State, Colorado State and Wyoming, UNLV had slipped to 9-7 overall and 0-3 in the conference, and Rice was bought out.

A 2015-16 season that started with promise — the Rebels beat Indiana in the Maui Invitational and Oregon at the MGM Grand Garden — quickly unraveled on Rice.

It was his first head coaching job, and he had made some errors during his 4½-year era. Conclusions were drawn that Rice was too nice to his players to be a great head coach and his ideal role was as an assistant. Maybe that is true. He now sits next to fiery Nevada coach Eric Musselman, and their partnership is working well with the Wolf Pack.

If Rice gets another head-coaching shot, and he almost certainly will, he will be better prepared the second time around.

Was his midseason dismissal the right move? Looking back, it obviously was not. But at the time, if Kunzer-Murphy had a solid plan in place, it could have been justified.

Her small-time plan was doomed to fail. At the urging of a powerful booster or two, she put Todd Simon in charge as interim coach. Simon, a Rice assistant, was the former head coach at Findlay Prep. Presumably, she hoped Simon could rally the Rebels into the NCAA Tournament and win the full-time job. Simon simply lacked experience for a big-time job.

With a two-month head start on a coaching search, UNLV did nothing. Eventually, the search disintegrated into a circus.

Rick Pitino checked out the job, but he sniffed out the negative situation in the administration and decided to stay at Louisville. If UNLV had fired Rice and been prepared to pay Pitino $4 million or more a year, the investment would have paid off and things would be very different today.

Brad Underwood was available, but no move was made to get him. Another big mistake. Underwood left Stephen F. Austin for a reasonable five-year, $6.3 million contract at Oklahoma State, where he’s 20-9 this season.

Instead, with the saga dragging into late March, Kunzer-Murphy clumsily pursued Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, who had absolutely no intention of accepting UNLV’s offer. He used it for leverage, left town and never was heard from again. A waste of time.

Other candidates surfaced. Chris Beard was hired, only to leave when a better situation for him surprisingly opened at Texas Tech.

In a panic, Kunzer-Murphy rushed to hire Menzies, who was hellbent on escaping Las Cruces, where he was winning at New Mexico State yet stuck in a dead-end job in a conference even worse than the Mountain West.

This all falls under the ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’ category: Kunzer-Murphy is on the way out after a series of blunders, Jessup has no clue what to do next with an athletic department running up debt, and the boosters and fans who wanted Rice gone are stuck with a last-place team. Menzies’ dream job is a nightmare, with the Rebels at 10-19 and 3-13 in the league. His team displays little talent or toughness, and recruiting will get no easier.

Pitino, Underwood, Cronin and Beard are better off elsewhere. Rice is resurrecting his career in Reno.

“This was not an easy decision,” Jessup said on the day of Rice’s exit. “But sometimes change is necessary to move forward.”

Kunzer-Murphy said, “I felt we needed to make a change. We expect to win here.”

This change has been a disaster. UNLV has set a program record for losses in a season, and the Thomas & Mack is a ghost town. The Rebels are drifting in the direction of other ghost programs — once great, now irrelevant — like DePaul, Georgetown and St. John’s.

UNLV has the potential to be relevant again. The Rebels won 30 games and reached the Sweet 16 under Lon Kruger 10 years ago. It’s a program with a history of great players and the 1990 NCAA championship. The Mendenhall Center is an elite practice facility, and the aging Thomas & Mack is still a great college arena. But the next athletic director needs to be the perfect hire.

Last spring, Menzies accepted what he knew would be a tough job. He has yet to prove he’s the right guy for it. Nobody ever expected it would get this ugly at UNLV.

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