Regional pairing really no surprise for Rebels in Hawaii

LAHAINA, Hawaii — He knew the matchup before it was announced and not because Dave Rice had some inside source feeding him information.

It just made too much sense, is all.

You can count on certain things from the Maui Invitational: The intimacy and sticky conditions inside the Lahaina Civic Center, the breathtaking scenery outside of it, a stacked field competing and which of those teams might ultimately meet in the opening day’s final game.

Those who run one of the most recognized preseason college basketball tournaments understand what plays well on television, and having two West Coast programs like UNLV and UCLA compete on ESPN2 at 8:30 p.m. Pacific Time on Monday is good for business.

“I assumed all along this would be our first game,” Rice said. “We saw it last year when San Diego State played BYU in this same game and time slot. For us, it was just important to get our program back to Maui and this is as good a field as there has been in a long time.

“We have a lot of respect for UCLA. We know how good they are.”

Rice and his Rebels have been on the island since Friday, enjoying with seven other teams those pre-tournament activities that create memories, the luau and dance competition and cruise and special dinners.

I’m pretty sure surfing was out.

The last thing UNLV needs is some untimely injury.

For the first time tonight in a young season that has seen UNLV produce a 3-0 start, the Rebels will test themselves against someone with like talent and athleticism.

The fact letters across the opposing jerseys will read UCLA is important for many reasons, none more so than how such a game might play to prospective recruits.

It’s ironic. Rice is in his fifth season as UNLV’s head coach and former New Mexico boss Steve Alford in his third leading the Bruins, but few times have the former Mountain West peers competed for the same players since Alford arrived in Westwood.

One big fish UCLA wanted but the Rebels snagged is freshman center Stephen Zimmerman Jr., who decided to stay home and play collegiately after starring at Bishop Gorman High. But there haven’t been many other high-profile names that have cut down lists to include both UNLV and UCLA, surprising when considering these are two of the prominent programs out West.

“I think it’s a situation where we are both national programs,” Rice said. “We both recruit nationally, and we’ve had a lot of success in the Midwest and on the East Coast. The West Coast will always be important to us because where we are located, but just being in this type of tournament is important because of all the national programs with tradition that are also here.

“Places like Los Angeles and Northern California will always be important to us, but we’ve been able to recruit all over the country.”

UCLA still resonates with kids. Zimmerman talks about his visits to the campus during the recruiting process, about how he was reminded often how many NBA stars the program has produced at his position.

You hear about national championship banners a lot. That gets your attention.

Jerome Seagears played his high school ball in Maryland and North Carolina and his first three seasons of college at Rutgers, but UNLV’s senior point guard knew well the program with the blue and gold uniforms that sits five miles from the Pacific Ocean, understanding why tonight’s game is something more than just the opening round of a prestigious event.

“People are always going to consider UCLA a powerhouse with 11 national championships, but I think they also understand every program has up and down years,” Seagears said. “Even when I was back (East), we looked at UCLA as a top program.”

The Bruins are 20 years removed from their last national title and seven from their last Final Four appearance, trying to rediscover under Alford a level of success most programs would deem impossible to reach.

UNLV is simply trying to avoid missing the NCAA Tournament a third straight year.

This is not only a great test for the Rebels, but a winnable one. The UCLA and UNLV we see a few months from now should each be far better than what plays out tonight, and there are few better times in a college season than November to steal a game a betting line suggests you should lose.

“I think our guys are excited to play UCLA,” Rice said. “We want to prepare for everyone the same way, but it’s just human nature that if you’re playing a nationally recognized program — whether it’s UCLA or Kansas or Arizona or Oregon or others — that it gets your attention. It’s also critical to be on (national television). That’s a huge deal. All of this helps recruiting tremendously.”

He knew this would be the matchup before any bracket was announced.

Makes too much sense.

— Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be a heard on “Seat and Ed” on Fox Sports 1340 from 2 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. On Twitter: @edgraney.

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