Taking a trip to Las Vegas for a conference tournament was never a question for Dave Rice. Figuring out what team he’d be going with, however, was a bit of a mystery.
Life was good for Rice in Nevada. He was an assistant in Reno where the University of Nevada was building toward another big season. The Wolf Pack were coming off a 28-win campaign and a NCAA Tournament appearance. There was enough returning and incoming talent to ensure the 2017-18 season would lead to the Wolf Pack winning another Mountain West Conference Tournament.
But Rice received a phone call from an old friend in Mike Hopkins. The longtime Syracuse assistant was hired by Washington to restore the program and wanted Rice to join him.
Rice now finds himself at the heart of Hopkins’ rebuild and that’s led him back to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Conference Tournament at the T-Mobile Arena. Hopkins, who was named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year on Monday, led UW (20-11, 10-8 Pac-12) to its first 20-win season since the 2011-12 campaign.
“I was at a very good place with a great coach in Eric Musselman,” Rice said. “But it made sense to come and be part of what Coach Hop is building here. I’m excited to be here.”
The Rice-Hopkins relationship started as they were starting in the collegiate coaching ranks. It’s easy to see why considering the similarities they shared.
Rice was born and raised in Southern California. So was Hopkins.
Rice played at a college powerhouse in UNLV where he was part of the 1990 national championship team. Hopkins did not win a national title as a player but he also played for a power in Syracuse.
Rice played for a Basketball Hall of Fame coach in Jerry Tarkanian. Hopkins played for a Basketball Hall of Fame and College Basketball Hall of Fame coach in Jim Boeheim.
Rice learned from Tim Grgurich when he was an assistant at UNLV. Hopkins has repeatedly talked about Grgurich as one of the biggest influences in his coaching career.
And like Hopkins, both men made a decision to leave places where they laid down roots. Hopkins lived in Syracuse for more than 20 years. It’s where he met his wife, Trish, and that’s where all three of their children were born.
Rice and his wife, Mindy, both went to UNLV and raised their children in Nevada. They spent a little more than 15 years of their lives living in The Silver State.
Together they established The Dave Rice Foundation and the non-profit organization was dedicated to educating and supporting health initiatives such as autism.
“Even though we were originally from Southern California, Las Vegas had definitely become home,” Rice said. “But we like Seattle. To be part of the UW community is tremendous. I had all the confidence in the world that Coach Hop was going to be very successful here and build on what was already a great tradition.”
Hopkins has assembled a coaching staff that comes with some strong credentials.
Will Conroy was a former star guard at UW who is building a reputation as one of the bright young assistants in the game.
Cameron Dollar won a national championship when he was a player at UCLA. A former UW assistant, he was the head coach at Seattle University for eight seasons.
And there’s Rice.
He’s been an assistant at BYU, UNLV and Utah State before returning to his alma mater as the head coach. Rice spent four full seasons with the Running Rebels. He went 98-54 and reached the NCAA Tournament twice.
Conroy once joked how he tries to stay out of Hopkins’ ear during timeouts because Dollar and Rice have so much experience.
“It’s understanding the responsibility that comes with moving over those few feet on the bench and being the guy in charge,” Rice said. “Coach Hop is a great communicator. ... He delegates and let’s people do their job. I think that’s why he’s successful. That’s why there’s never a doubt about who’s in charge of the program.
“It’s Coach Hop’s program and he’s putting his stamp on it but at the same time, he empowers the people around him to do their jobs as well.”
Ryan S. Clark: @ryan_s_clark