It’s not accurate to say that King Rice learned everything he knows about basketball from Jeff Lebo. Not when Rice, an assistant coach under Kevin Stallings, played college basketball at North Carolina for legendary coach Dean Smith.
But Lebo did teach Rice a thing or two during their two years together as Tar Heels, though, and the first lesson came shortly after Rice, a native of upstate New York, arrived on campus for his freshman year.
“Lebo probably doesn’t remember this, but the first time I played against (him) in a pick-up game, he scored like nine of the 11 points against me,” Rice said. “The older guys kept giving him the ball and he was killing me.
“It’s funny now. It really wasn’t funny that day when it was happening.”
The two will enjoy a reunion of sorts Saturday when the Commodores host Auburn, which is in its sixth season with Lebo as head coach. Tip-off is 12:30 p.m. at Memorial Gymnasium.
Vanderbilt (14-3, 3-0 in the SEC) is off to its best SEC start in 20 years. Auburn (10-9, 1-3) got its first conference victory Wednesday, 84-80 over LSU, when it did not allow a point in the final 3:29.
“You hate to play against your buddies,” Lebo said. “King is one of my good friends. On top of being one of my former teammates, he’s a class act who’s going to be a great head coach when he gets that opportunity.”
As was the case when they were both point guards at UNC, Rice must wait for the chance while Lebo, who is two years older, already thrives in the role.
Initially troubled by a lack of playing time in college, Rice eventually thrived and finished third all-time for assists at North Carolina (11th in the Atlantic Coast Conference). He was named the team’s top defensive player as a junior and its most outstanding senior in 1991.
“You’re jaded as a high school senior — you think you’re better than everybody,” Rice said. “I thought I would outplay everybody when I went in there.
“(Lebo) was like the big brother who kept his arm around me when he would see me get frustrated.”
A year ago, when he scouted Auburn prior to their meeting at Beard-Eaves Coliseum, Rice saw influences — some subtle — of what they learned in college. For example, at UNC plays often were called with something less obvious than a hand signal or a single word.
Vanderbilt won that game 82-75 — its third straight victory, and fifth in the last six meetings, with the Tigers.
“I caught some of it last year when it was my scout and thought it was pretty funny because he almost slipped a couple things past me,” Rice said.
It was not Rice’s responsibility to prepare the scouting report for Saturday’s contest, but he made sure the assistant whose job it was knew what to look for.
“He certainly knows me,” Lebo conceded. “Some of the North Carolina stuff we do, but we don’t do all of that here.”
What’s obvious to anyone is the amount of basketball they — and their teammates — learned during their time together in college.
Lebo and Rice are not the only Tar Heels from the late 1980s and early '90s currently working as coaches. Pat Sullivan is an assistant coach with the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. Scott Cherry is in his first year as head coach at High Point University (N.C.), and Brian Reese is head coach at Wingate University (N.C.).
Yet of that group Rice remains closest to Lebo and says the two talk a couple times a month throughout the season.
“We definitely stay in touch because it’s a brotherhood,” he said. “We were friends before we got these jobs, and I want him to do as well as anybody. I pull for him when they’re not playing us. If there’s anything I can ever do to help him, I will. He still helps me with advice.
“I still look up to him because of the relationship we built when we were at Carolina.