RTF Fan Series: UNLV

Over the next few weeks I'll be interviewing fans from different schools in order to get an insider perspective on their program. First up is Shawn Cunningham who is a UNLV alum and basketball fanatic. I know Shawn from Twitter, as he seems to be at every game, and I like getting an inside-the-arena view of games I'm watching. I follow Shawn, and you should too.

I contacted Shawn while he was following UNLV on their fall trip to Canada.

RTF: You're a UNLV fan. How did that come to be?  

SC: Lived in Vegas since age 9 and went to UNLV. It's the only game in town and I love hoops, match made.

RTF: UNLV is on a pre-season trip to Canada, and you chose to go along. That's hardcore! What are you hoping to get out of the trip?  

SC: Vacation and fun. I love hoops, I got my brother Kyle into it so I would have someone to come along who can also take off in mid week for a road trip or the NCAAs, etc. Mission accomplished (-;  We are both in Canada for the for the first time and also get to watch the Rebels live in small gyms play real teams. It's been an awesome trip so far and we haven't even made it to Montreal yet. Perhaps more than anything I just like to show support to our guys. Most of the hoops world may not see much of UNLV but our fans are hardcore and follow the team.

RTF: How many games do you think you will see in person this season?  

Seeing as I plan my vacations around UNLV hoops season (really hoops season in general) I will see every home game and MW tourney game, plus every NCAA tourney game. It's unlikely I will make it to conference road games this season except Reno, and the only road OOC games I will make will be Chapel Hill and Berkeley. I would guess 20 games is a good number, which is average.

RTF: What's your favorite UNLV hoops memory?

SC: First off, keep in mind I went to UNLV well after the glory days. I know it sounds odd considering the great moments of late (beating UNC for one) that I enjoyed, but for me it was the win in Freedom Hall on New Year's Eve 2007. My best friend at the time who really got me into Rebel ball was with me at that game and died a few months after that win, so it was the last roadie we did. I never forget his speechless face when the buzzer sounded (guy rarely was speechless in a hoops game). Plus that was a down year for us (NIT) and Louisville ended up the No. 1 overall seed. And we didn't have our best player, Wink Adams, for the game. Just was the biggest upset I've seen in person. Freedom Hall is just such an historic place to take in a game.  

RTF: Last season ended on a sour note – but they've earned high expectations this year with their returning talent and recruiting class (and transfer). How big of a role will the new guys play? And with Stanback and Bellfield having graduated (and Mike Moser a 33% 3pt shooter) who is going to stretch defenses with perimeter shots?  

SC: Katin Reinhardt might be the most under-hyped recruit we have. He should've been an all-American if not for being from the west and committing early to UNLV. He is a lethal scorer from the perimeter, with Jimmer range but with much more athleticism. Bryce Dejean-Jones is also a good shooter and an elite scorer who has gone criminally under-noticed at the national level. Moser will shoot it better when he moves to the 3 full-time and finds his new role. Also with Bennett and eventually Birch down low this team will have no trouble scoring inside or out.

RTF: The Mountain West is going to be stacked again this year. Where do you see UNLV finishing? What will make this season a success?  

SC: SDSU has to the the favorite just based on recent history. I really think CSU, UNM and Nevada will be very good but it's an SDSU/UNLV race. I do think this Rebel team will have a level of mental toughness and scoring punch that was missing in prior years. A deeper tourney run is a good possibility.

RTF: Dave Rice has been around the UNLV program for what seems like half his life. But this is his fist shot at a head coaching gig. He had a solid first year. He's already landed Khem Birch and Anthony Bennett who might be the two most highly rated UNLV recruits in over a decade. I'm guessing that the fans love this guy, no? But more importantly, if he continues down this road do you think UNLV has the resources to keep him from being poached by a bigger school?  

SC: Fans were evenly split when he was hired – 50/50 for him and Reggie Theus. The "insiders" all knew Rice was the guy because they knew how well prepared he was for the job, moreso than any other candidate. I wanted Rice for the same reason, plus I always felt the only way to get back to elite levels was with a higher risk/higher reward hire, which Rice as a first time coach qualified as. I was very overjoyed the day he was hired, though he has still far exceeded what I expected in terms of recruiting, and his amazing understanding of what makes Rebel fans tick. To the average Vegas fan, winning is the key – and his wins on the recruiting trail have energized the whole city as much as winning games has. To the smaller group of hardcore people – he is loved for a couple reasons: 1) Rice coaches without ego (taking less money to get the best assistants for instance, hiring a former HC and a Rebel great, etc.)  2) He is a grinder on the recruiting trail  3) He doesn't expect UNLV to take a backseat to any program in recruiting/winning/exposure, etc. 4) He knows style matters as much as winning in Las Vegas.

I'm not naive, but I really think Rice is a lifer here. This is his dream job, and it's a really good job given the access to recruits, facilities and fan support.  Money won't be the issue – there's enough support for UNLV the money can be found to keep him here and pay him very well. I doubt he'll ever make as much as he could in the Big Ten or ACC…  but as is increasingly common across the hoops landscape coaches are not chasing the paycheck as much as recognizing where you can win and make an impact.