|It's starting to feel like 1990 again in Las Vegas. (AP)|
LAS VEGAS -- Tark was sitting courtside, Flava Flav rolled into the student section and stood just in front of the mammoth life-sized head of UNLV star Mike Moser. Just a few seats over sat Vegas native and the nation's top-ranked recruit, Shabazz Muhammad.
The Runnin' Rebels are relevant again, thriving to become as cool in this city as the Marquee nightclub.
Vegas will never be what is was back in the late 80's when Jerry Tarkanian and his players owned this city, when they won the national title in 1990 and nearly ran the table the following season before losing in the Final Four.
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"It's the best I've seen it since I left," the 81-year-old Tarkanian said moments after watching UNLV hold off San Diego State 65-63.
The atmosphere was off the charts. It was sold out the day before the game for the first time in years. The student section was filled as soon as the gates opened and there were signs and oversized cutouts being displayed throughout the crowd.
"It was as good as it ever was," said UNLV coach Dave Rice, a reserve guard on the 1990 and 1991 teams. "The student section is even better than it was back then."
This was a rare matchup of two Mountain West teams in the top 15. It happened a year ago when Jimmer Fredette and BYU faced Steve Fisher's Aztecs, but no one anticipated this matchup having any meaning on the national stage -- certainly never anticipating a Top 25 clash.
San Diego State has been one of the true shockers this season, a team that lost four starters --- including lottery pick Kawhi Leonard -- from a year ago. UNLV had a new coach in Rice and a bunch of solid, fairly anonymous players. Lon Kruger did a nice job with this program over the past seven years.
But it was never like this.
"I've been coming since the 1990s and it was deafening today," said Muhammad's father, Ron Holmes. "Shabazz told me it was similar to the environments at Duke and Kentucky."
Even Las Vegas Sun columnist Ron Kantowski, who has been covering the team since the late 80s, said this was comparable to how it was in the old days when Tark was gnawing on the towel while roaming the sideline.
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"Our guys were tired of the questions about them winning nine of the last 10," Rice said.
On Saturday afternoon it was UNLV that came out on top. It was hardly a thing of beauty, a 13-point lead that disappeared late in the game. However, the Runnin' Rebels (22-4, 6-2 Mountain West) held on for the victory.
"We still haven't arrived yet," star forward Mike Moser said after going for 19 points and nine boards. "It was great for the crowd to come out like that, but we still have to take care of business and win games."
Rice has won 22 of them thus far as a rookie head coach. He was a reserve guard on the two most successful teams in program history and has quickly taken this program to a new level. He's the first one to credit his predecessor for building it, but Rice understands this place as well as anyone, how to navigate this city and continue to blend the old and the new without ruffling feathers.
"He's doing an unbelievable job," said Tarkanian, whose health is clearly on the decline over the last few years.
Rice spent 11 seasons as an assistant coach at UNLV before stints with Stew Morrill at Utah State and most recently with Dave Rose at BYU. In his time, he saw eight different guys in charge of the program at one time or another. It started with his time under Tarkanian, continued with Tim Grgurich, Howie Landa, Cleveland Edwards, Bill Bayno, Max Good, Charlie Spoonhour and Jay Spoonhour.
"We're in a good place," said the mild-mannered Rice.
A real good place, in fact.
Those around these people will get used to it.
Rice and his coaching staff -- recruiter Justin Hutson, ex-UNLV star Stacey Augmon and former Wyoming head coach Heath Schroyer -- have gotten things done on the recruiting trail. UNLV will lose seniors Oscar Bellfield, Brice Massamba and Chace Stanback -- which on the surface looks like a significant hit. But the talent level is about to undergo a significant upgrade.
Once Pittsburgh transfer Khem Birch is eligible after the first semester ends next season, Rice can trot out a starting lineup that looks like this: Anthony Marshall, USC transfer Bryce Jones and freshman Katin Reinhardt on the perimeter with Moser and Birch up front.
"It feels good for them to be back," said Las Vegas resident Flavor Flav. "You don't know how long I've been waiting for them to get back on top."
They aren't there yet, but the Runnin' Rebs are coming.