by Andy Lipton

Once is a while it’s good to see how the other side lives. For this East Coast basketball fan who was in Las Vegas this past week for a few days, I visited the other side. And got lucky. But it’s not what you think. It was a UNLV basketball game I got to see up front and in person. Basketball on the West Coast. And a college basketball program with a famous history.

This past Wednesday night the Runnin’ Rebels from UNLV played the Aggies from Utah State in a Mountain West Conference game on UNLV’s home court (the Tarkanian court) at the Thomas & Mack Center on campus in front of a crowd of 12,919.

Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer once said that playing on the West Coast meant many people in the country did not get to see her team play. Her team has been one of the best in the country for many years. But the time difference between the coasts meant that it was often too late for people in the east to watch her teams play. And the implication was that many people in the country did not know how good the Stanford women had played.

The allure of seeing the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels emanates from its glory days of the early 1990s when they went to the NCAA Final Four two years in a row, winning the Championship in 1990 with a high-powered team whose starters included Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony, who all went on to play in the NBA.

UNLV

And of course, the coach of those teams and for many years before that was Jerry Tarkanian, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame this past summer. His record was 509-105 in 19 years as coach at UNLV. This Hall of Famer was also noted for the many years he spent battling the NCAA in and out of court. This past fall, UNLV erected a statue of Tark outside the Thomas & Mack Center. Although Tark often goes to home games, to my disappointment, he was not at the Utah State game.

The UNLV teams in the early 1990s were high scoring, extremely talented and highly publicized. People thought it was a perfect reflection of the city in which it played, a team of glitz, glamour and controversy.

The current UNLV team has a strong link to the glory years. And this team also seems to be a reflection of the city, but in a tale of two cities theme, a city you do not think of when you think of Vegas.

Coach Dave Rice and assistant coach Stacey Augmon both played on the 1990 championship team.

It’s rare that a player gets to be the head coach at his alma mater. The stuff of dreams. Now in his third year as head coach of the Runnin’ Rebels, Coach Rice has led his team to two consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and winning seasons of 26-9 and 25-10. This is Rice’s first college head coaching position, having spent 18 years as an assistant coach at the Division-I level. Eleven of those seasons were at UNLV.

One of those years, Rice was an assistant under Stew Merrill at Colorado. The same Stew Morrill who was the opposing coach for Utah State this past Wednesday evening.

A word about Coach Morrill.

He has coached Utah State for 16 years leading the team to a 378-134 (.738) record. In 27 years as a head coach at Montana, Colorado State and Utah State his teams have had a 596-272 (.687) record. His Utah State teams have won at least 20 games 14 seasons in a row. Utah State has made the NCAA Tournament eight years under his leadership.

The best testimonial about Coach Morrill came from Coach Rice after the game. He said that he gained 10 years of learning in his one season as Morrill’s assistant.

And a word about Las Vegas. Besides the bright lights and glamour, among other things to put it mildly, it is also a city comprised of hard-working every-day people, going to their jobs as cab drivers, barmaids, bartenders, bell-hops, cooks, waiters and waitresses, dealers, croupiers, chambermaids and security guards to make sure the tourists have a good time.

The Runnin’ Rebels brought that hard-working mentality to the Utah State game. Playing old-fashioned defense, each player guarded his man, staying in front of the man with the ball, guarding his man off the ball, and starting later in the first half for the rest of the game, guarding the post in textbook fashion.

There was no need for fancy defensive schemes, with each man playing his man, mano-a-mano. And there was no need for a chant of defense-defense by the excited crowd. The defense won the game holding Utah State to 42 points. The final score was 62-42.

If you want see why outstanding defense will make any basketball team competitive, watch a tape of this game.

Utah State came into the game 12-5, averaging 74.1 points on 48 percent shooting. In this game they shot 31 percent, 16-52 from the floor. UNLV made it very tough for the Aggies to get off decent shots, especially in the second half.

Utah State ran many picks off the ball. But despite a very talented 6-10 center, senior Jarred Shaw, there did not seem to be many effective wide-body or double-screens on the ball. Utah State’s leading rebounder, 6-7 sophomore Kyle Davis was injured and did not play.

Shaw, the Aggies’ leading scorer at 16.3 points per game, scored 12 points in the first half and had 2 points in the second half. He hardly got any touches in the second half and had no shots from the field in the second half.

His lack of touches in the second half significantly impacted the Aggies’ offense as not only is he a scoring threat, but the whole offense probably does better when the ball goes through him.

The credit goes to 6-9 junior UNLV center Khem Birch who, particularly in the second half, played post defense as well as you can. In the second half, Birch almost completely denied Shaw the ball using excellent technique and just the right amount of physicality. Birch only had two personal fouls in the game. Utah State did not counter with any help to get Shaw free down low in the second half.

Finally, a shout out to Runnin’ Rebels’ 6-8 junior forward Roscoe Smith. Going into the game, Smith was the leading rebounder in the country with 12.4 rebounds per game. Smith had 14 rebounds—5 offensive and 9 defensive—and 13 points in this game. He seemed to be everywhere. Tremendous hustle. If I am choosing up sides, he is my first pick. I want him on my team.