The McRib is back, and so is UNLV basketball.
While the NCAA bean-counters will have you believe it's all about football, it's basketball that pays the bills at UNLV.
The men's basketball team financed a few more tennis and swimming trips Friday night when a crowd of 12,970 turned out for the season opener against a UC Riverside team that was playing without Butch Johnson, the former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver, but could have used him.
The Rebels are coming off another solid year at the turnstiles during which they averaged 13,917 fans, ranking 18th among the 333 basketball-playing schools and UC Riverside. The NCAA average of 5,038 was down by 147 paying customers and NCAA Tournament attendance also was slightly down, while UNLV attendance was up from 13,446 in 2008-09. Every little bit helps, especially with the football team unable to sustain itself and the local economy still plodding along like Donovan McNabb in the fourth quarter.
According to U.S. Department of Education data, UNLV's $9.1 million in basketball revenue is highest among Mountain West Conference schools (Utah is second with $6 million). The Rebels' basketball budget of $3.4 million ranks fifth in the MWC (Texas Christian is first at $4.1 million), so Lon Kruger certainly is giving the school some return on its dollars.
"When men's basketball has a great year, it helps everybody," deputy athletic director Jerry Koloskie said, adding that he was encouraged by the thousands watching from the balcony Friday. "That means we had a pretty good walk-up (crowd)."
Brigham Young finished 17th in NCAA attendance last season and New Mexico was 22nd to help the MWC finish sixth among the 31 basketball-playing conferences with average attendance of 8,176. The MWC received a record four NCAA Tournament bids; the Big Ten, first in attendance with a 12,591 average, got five.
Meanwhile, the McRib averages 26 grams of fat and 980 milligrams of sodium, which would make it a small favorite against Ali Farokhmanesh and Northern Iowa in the Midwest Regional.
■ JAVAN HEDLUND: "The way things are right now, if you're not on the ESPN family of networks, you're not on television," the Mountain West communications director told the Los Angeles Times. Cue the Hallelujah chorus here.
■ TINA KUNZER-MURPHY: The MAACO Bowl Las Vegas executive director is one of nearly two dozen sports women featured in "Playing Ball With the Boys," a new book by former ESPN anchor Betsy M. Ross. Sideline reporter Sammy Linebaugh of The Mtn. didn't make the cut, probably because Betsy M. Ross doesn't get that channel.
■ JASON ZUCKER: The first Las Vegan to be drafted by the NHL, Zucker is the University of Denver's second-leading scorer with seven goals and two assists in his first 11 games as a college hockey player. If Zucker goes on to play in the NHL, it will be a bigger story than the Jamaican bobsled team crashing out of the Calgary Olympics, although Walt Disney's people might not make a movie about it.
■ UNLV FOOTBALL: A lot of people don't think very much of UNLV playing Division I-AA Southern Utah in football next year. But had the teams met Saturday, the Thunderbirds would have been a 1-point favorite according to the USA Today power ratings. And that's factoring in the extra field goal the Rebels would get for playing at home.
■ TONY ROMO JERSEYS: Front Row Sports at Galleria Mall has cut prices on its Dallas Cowboys inventory by 25 percent. The young woman working the counter said Miami Heat jerseys are still going for full price but that LeBron better get his butt in gear.
■ ELIJAH JOHNSON: The Cheyenne High School product was expected to get more minutes as a sophomore at Kansas this year, especially with the eligibility of point guard Josh Selby in question. But there was this in the Kansas City Star from Jayhawks coach Bill Self: "The thing that concerns me with Elijah is he's so careless with the ball. Either we need to get him off the ball, or he needs to take better care of it." Then Johnson did not play in KU's opening win over Longwood (Va.) for disciplinary reasons. So it would appear his jersey also has been discounted 25 percent.
Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-0352.