In the near future, Jim Saia plans to put Cal State San Marcos on the college basketball map. But before he could start working on that, the veteran coach had to find it.
"A lot of people don't know where San Marcos is," Saia said. "When I got the call for this job, I had no idea where San Marcos was, either."
For the record, the campus is located 30 miles north of San Diego, five miles east of Carlsbad, and 12 miles from the beach. The Cougars are competing as a first-year NAIA program, and their next stop on the road to recognition is Las Vegas.
UNLV (8-1) hosts Cal State San Marcos (5-5) at 7 p.m. today at Orleans Arena in a meeting of two teams without a home. The Rebels are playing their fifth straight game away from the Thomas & Mack Center, which is occupied by the National Finals Rodeo.
After an eight-game winning streak, UNLV was knocked out of the national rankings with an 89-70 loss at Wichita State on Sunday. In the middle of a tough stretch of their schedule, the humbled Rebels are landing in a soft spot.
"This is a chance for us to get the Wichita game behind us and make improvement," UNLV coach Dave Rice said. "It just was not our best defensive effort. For whatever reason, we just didn't have anything in the tank."
The Cougars lost 92-88 to Concordia, the NAIA's top-ranked team, on Tuesday night. After the game, Saia filled the gas tanks of four minivans and brought his team to Las Vegas.
"We're a mom-and-pop organization," Saia said. "One of my mottos is, 'Make the big time where you're at,' and this is part of life's journey, so I'm trying to build this thing."
Saia, 47, has been to the big time. He was the interim head coach at Southern California in 2004-05, after serving as a UCLA assistant from 1996-2003. During his seven-year tenure, the Bruins reached the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 five times.
He moved on to become coach at Fresno Pacific for three seasons, compiling a 70-29 record, but never got the major Division I job he was seeking.
"I came in second for a lot of jobs," he said. "I'm reinventing myself."
Saia was selected from a pool of more than 250 applicants to start the Cal State San Marcos program, which is operating with limited resources and has no home arena yet. The team is currently playing at Mira Costa College in Oceanside. In a few years, the Cougars hope to compete as a Division II team.
UNLV needed to fill an open date on its schedule, and Saia jumped at the opportunity. Cal State San Marcos gets a guaranteed payout of $17,000, which is crucial for a start-up program with only four full scholarship players.
Saia has had longtime relationships with Rice and Rebels assistant Heath Schroyer, and said he's "grateful to those guys for playing us." He watched Rice as a player on the Rebels' 1990 NCAA championship team and 1991 Final Four team.
"I've been around a long time, and I've seen a lot of basketball," Saia said, "and that UNLV team is the greatest college basketball team I've ever seen."
The Cougars' 6-foot-8-inch senior forward, Alpha Ndiaye, reminds Saia of a former Rebels big man.
"He's kind of a poor man's George Ackles," Saia said. "He runs the floor and blocks shots."
Saia said Cal State San Marcos, which lost 78-63 in an exhibition at San Diego State on Nov. 2, might try to run with the Rebels. The Cougars feature several Division I transfers, including leading scorer Tim Steed, a guard from Fresno State.
"We're athletic and we run. We're pretty good in transition," Saia said. "The slow, grinding game is a game we have a tough time winning. But we don't want to get in a crazy track meet with UNLV.
"I think we will be competitive. It should be good for both teams, and not just a game we play and they beat us by 50."
After testing their strength against the Rebels, in what counts as an exhibition for the Cougars and a regular-season game for UNLV, Cal State San Marcos will play at Brigham Young (Dec. 27) and Fresno State (Jan. 18).
UNLV senior forward Chace Stanback, who has averaged 21 points in the past three games, said he could not find San Marcos on a map, either. But he's not looking past the Cougars to a Saturday game at 14th-ranked Wisconsin.
"You definitely can't take any team lightly. Our focus right now is San Marcos," Stanback said. "We'll think about Wisconsin after this game."
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907.