Kruger helps UNLV pack Mack again

Some arrived early. Some arrived on time. Some, because this is Las Vegas where it is one’s birthright to do so, arrived late.

They had a party as the Rebels kicked Jimmer Fredette and then-No. 12 Brigham Young to the curb Saturday afternoon. When they left, UNLV led the Far West, which is what the sports writers back east call the Pacific-10, Mountain West, Western Athletic Conference and Gonzaga, in basketball attendance.

Yes, the Rebels are packing them in like sardines again at the Thomas & Mack Center. Only this time it is Lon Kruger holding the key to the rollback can.

The giant crowd of 18,557 was the largest to watch the Rebels hoop it up in 17 years. It was the perfect storm, both inside and outside the T&M. It rained so hard that George Clooney passed me in his swordfish boat on Tropicana Avenue. But the foul weather didn’t deter mass quantities of Rebels fans from showing up and creating the kind of ruckus that hasn’t been heard around here since Larry Johnson was throwing down dunks against the likes of Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara.

The familiar chant of REB-ELS! was still ringing in our ears when I bumped into Jim Livengood, the new UNLV athletic director. We were putting on our galoshes in the bowels of the T&M, back where they used to keep the hockey nets when the minor league Thunder outdrew UNLV.

"When you have an electric atmosphere like we had in here today," Livengood said, "and then you play like we did … this is one of those things you market and say ‘Can we do this again? Can this be Groundhog Day?’ Because it was that exciting."

Punxsutawney Phil couldn’t get in. Apparently, the scalpers out front were asking too much for a plaza seat. But at least Johnson got in. He and his old coach Jerry Tarkanian were sitting behind the Rebels’ bench. Had Brent Musburger and Billy Packer been sitting courtside instead of a couple of impostors representing the Versus cable channel, it would have been just like old times.

In addition to making the fire marshal frown, the big turnout enabled UNLV to leapfrog New Mexico and Arizona in attendance. The Rebels are averaging 13,633, followed by the Wildcats at 13,487 and the Lobos at 13,397. BYU, with an average of 12,773, also is in five figures, something the NCAA Tournament committee should keep in mind when it gets around to placing teams in the San Jose and Spokane brackets in a few weeks.

Yeah, I’ve heard the argument that arenas in the Mountain West are bigger than those in the Pac-10. My counter argument is that supply-and-demand thing I sort of remember from econ class. Besides, the Rebels’ attendance includes the game they played against Kansas State in the quaint Orleans Arena when the National Finals Rodeo was in town.

Livengood said UNLV’s surge at the turnstiles couldn’t be more timely. With money from the state legislature drying up like Robert Downey Jr. at the Betty Ford Center, the cash cow basketball program might have to deliver calves if the Rebels are to make athletic ends meet.

"It’s critical from a financial standpoint," Livengood said. "My biggest challenge here is going to be developing a plan where we are less dependent on Carson City."

Kruger is certainly doing his part, on the court and off. He and that Terry Fator guy are tied for the lead in public appearances. And when attendance lagged after the Rebels’ 2007 Sweet Sixteen season, Kruger had the vision and gumption to begin marketing his own program out of his own pocket. He lost a little money on the deal. But after tumbling to 33rd in national attendance and setting up his own Web site, the Rebels climbed to 22nd last year. If you ask him, ask the Rebels’ players, ask the guys selling hot dogs on the concourse, the trade-off has been more than worth it.

"The crowd was fantastic," Kruger said after the BYU game, echoing what has become a common refrain. "The students have been so good all year long."

Sort of like the Rebels under his watch during much of the past four seasons.

"We were sort of like an independent movie that’s really good, but there was no marketing for it," said D.J. Allen, the point man for Kruger’s outside marketing team. "But let’s not kid ourselves. The key to having a good product is winning. That’s No. 1."

At 19-4 and locked in a three-way tie atop the Mountain West with BYU and New Mexico, the Rebels once again have become a hot ticket. So hot, in fact, that Ronnie, the graveyard bartender at Main Street Station, had to watch the BYU game from the very top row of Section 216. When I saw him Sunday night, his nose was still bleeding.

The perfect storm continues Wednesday when the Lobos steam into the Thomas & Mack Center for yet another first-place showdown.

Ronnie the bartender said he’d be getting his tickets early.

Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352.

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