UNLV’s Rebels are up and runnin’ again

As you enter the Thomas & Mack Center a few miles off the Las Vegas Strip, a giant sign welcomes you to a new era in UNLV basketball that looks a lot like an old era: “LET’S RUN,” it says.

That’s the slogan first-year head coach Dave Rice adopted after he was announced as the man to reignite UNLV basketball and bring the Runnin’ Rebels back to their glory years.

All around this year’s team is the aura of what this program did two decades ago, when it fielded some of the finest teams in NCAA history. Hanging near the locker room are framed photographs of All-Americans from the 1990 national championship team, names such as Larry Johnson and Greg Anthony. Working with the guards on their defense at a recent practice is Stacey Augmon, one of five NBA first-round picks from those early-1990s glory years and now a Rebels assistant coach.

And standing at mid-court, presiding over one of the most exciting surprises of this college basketball season, is Rice, whose experience as a bench player for that 1990 UNLV national championship squad under then-coach Jerry Tarkanian informs how he leads his Rebels today.

How has this 43-year-old former Rhodes scholar candidate been leading this team since he took over from Lon Kruger last year in Rice’s first head coaching job? In a word: Phenomenally.

"They’re a very good team,” former Rebel standout Anthony told FOXSports.com. “The style of play, the unselfishness, and you’ve got several guys who can play against anybody in the country. They believe they can beat anybody. … The talent pool has gotten better over the last few years. It started with Coach Kruger. He came in and put together a foundation to get the program headed in the right direction.”

So right of a direction that the UNLV fan base, thirsty for a nationally relevant program after a two-decade basketball drought in the desert, can be heard making excited (if premature) comparisons to those glory years.

Consider: Before they lost on the road last weekend against Wyoming, the Runnin’ Rebels were ranked 11th in the nation, their highest ranking since Isaiah Rider’s senior year in 1992-93. They’re 10th in the nation in points per game and third in assists per game, reminiscent of the high-flying, high-scoring Rebs of yore.

Six-foot-eight forward Mike Moser, third in the nation in rebounding, is garnering some buzz for the Naismith College Player of the Year Award, which UNLV hasn’t captured since Johnson won it in 1991.

After their back-to-back Final Four appearances in 1990 and 1991, the Rebels have only won three NCAA Tournament games. But now, Rice has got his up-tempo 21-4 Rebels — who are facing their Mountain West Conference rival, 13th–ranked San Diego State on Saturday in Las Vegas — running again.

“I have always felt like that’s the way you need to play when you’re UNLV,” Rice said. “It’s also my personality. You have to coach your personality. You have to be you. We want to push the ball as much as we can, and guys like to play that way. They’ve bought in and worked hard, and it gives us the opportunity to play more players.”

Rice got lucky when he took over: 11 players from Kruger’s team decided to stay for this season, providing continuity amid the upheaval. And they hit the ground running, upsetting the top-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels in November.

“That was a program-changing win for us,” Rice said, “but I want our program to be defined by consistency and not just by one game.”

Even though this team will lose four seniors, things still could look up for the Rebels next year. Most important, Moser had said he plans to stay for his junior season, holding the NBA at bay for another year. Khem Birch, a 6-foot-9, five-star recruit who transferred from Pittsburgh 10 games into his freshman season, will be available to play for the Rebels by the middle of next season.

That might give UNLV an advantage in landing the nation’s top recruiting prospect this year, 6-foot-6 shooting guard Shabazz Muhammad; he’s from Las Vegas and says he wants to play on a Final Four-caliber team. It also might help UNLV land another top recruit from Las Vegas, 6-foot-7 forward Anthony Bennett.

“We’re loading and reloading and reloading,” Moser said. “Soon, after a couple years, people are really going to know who the Rebels are, and expect us to be in the top 10, rather than us being a surprise.”

What shouldn’t surprise us is how this team reflects its neon-tinted city: Forcing the tempo, playing faster offense, creating offense out of defense, pushing the ball on every possession. That’s Vegas in a nutshell: Go, go, go.

And if you like the oddsmaking side of Vegas, here’s a quick note: The Runnin’ Rebels have yet to lose at the Thomas & Mack Center this season. Saturday’s game against San Diego State will be held in Vegas. And so will the Mountain West Tournament. So you have to like their odds of getting a strong NCAA seed.

If they do, that aura of the Tarkanian-led teams of the early 1990s ought to keep growing around these the Rice-led Rebels. Who knows? Maybe they’ll even bring back Gucci Row, the high-priced, courtside seats once occupied by some of Vegas’ most beautiful people.

“We gotta do a lot more than what we done now to get compared to them,” Moser said.

As for Anthony?

“I don’t necessarily think about the comparison,” Anthony said. “I don’t think that’s what’s important. What’s important is that the program returns to dominance. What the coaching staff is trying to do is establish a program that’ll be good perennially.”

You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at reidforgrave@gmail.com.