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Don’t laugh: Pitino still interested in Rebels

It might be fantasy, but now is the time for that. This is the beginning stage of a search for the next UNLV basketball coach, a search expected to extend at least two more months, and the right answer when it ends could be Rick Pitino.

Many observers will immediately dismiss the idea as laughable and unrealistic. But there are some reasons to entertain the possibility.

First and foremost, a source with connections to Pitino insists he is interested in the job, 15 years after his brief flirtation with Las Vegas. He went to Louisville in March 2001 and has not looked back — until now.

The time might be right for Pitino, 63, to make a move. He has survived well-publicized scandals and fought to escape the shadow of Kentucky coach John Calipari. Pitino coached the Cardinals to an NCAA championship in 2013, adding to his national title with the Wildcats in 1996, so what more is left for him to achieve?

He could be the king of Vegas and revive a program that has enjoyed few high times since late coach Jerry Tarkanian was forced out in 1992. If Pitino is looking for a challenge, and also in need of a city with basketball bloodlines and bright lights, this is it.

The Rebels have essentially bottomed out, missing the postseason the past two years and failing to win an NCAA Tournament game since 2008. The inability to compete for a Mountain West title spelled doom for Dave Rice, who was fired Sunday in the middle of his fifth season.

If Rice and his staff proved something, it’s that elite recruits will flock to UNLV. Pitino would have no problems with recruiting.

One of Pitino’s longtime friends in the coaching profession is Lon Kruger, who led the Rebels from 2004 to 2011. Kruger is the only post-Tarkanian coach to win an NCAA game at UNLV, where he reached the Sweet 16 and went 30-7 in the 2006-07 season.

Kruger left for Oklahoma, which offered a lot more money than UNLV had available, and money is why the Pitino-to-UNLV idea will be dismissed by so many.

In June, Louisville extended Pitino’s contract through 2025-26. His salary for this season is $4.4 million, and it increases to $5.1 million in 2016-17. His 10-year extension is reportedly worth close to $51 million.

There seems to be no way UNLV could compete with those dollar figures. Rice’s contract was worth $700,000 per year, and speculation is the Rebels’ next coach could make around $1 million annually.

Still, Pitino has several influential friends in Las Vegas, and if the most powerful boosters are serious about returning the program to the big time, it’s time for the deepest-pocketed boosters and some of the university’s clumsy administrators to lose a small-time mentality and shoot for a major star.

Even if the cost is around $4 million per year?

“If Pitino is interested, the money would be there,” a source close to UNLV said Friday.

Time will tell if that’s true, and if Pitino is serious about a move.

UNLV does offer one of college basketball’s finest practice facilities, the Mendenhall Center, and one of the nation’s largest arenas, the Thomas & Mack Center.

It might also offer a future for Pitino’s son. The source who stated Pitino’s interest in the job also said he might want to include Richard Pitino, who is struggling in his third season at Minnesota, on his staff and tap him as the Rebels’ coach-in-waiting.

Richard Pitino, 33, is a promising coach and potential star, but he’s stuck at a bottom-tier Big Ten program in a situation that appears hopeless.

All things considered, maybe there is hope for this version of the Pitino-to-UNLV story. Fifteen years ago, it was a failure. But this sequel could prove better than the original. It’s at least worth debating as the search continues.

A look at other candidates (in alphabetical order):

Mike Brown: The former NBA head coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers is being mentioned by local and national media, but multiple sources have said Brown is not getting serious consideration.

Larry Eustachy: It’s rare for coaches to move within a conference. However, the Colorado State coach can expect a call from the 702 area code. Although a quirky character, there’s no doubt he can coach.

Tim Floyd: Similar to Eustachy, Floyd knows X’s and O’s. He won at Iowa State and Southern California, had NBA stops in Chicago and New Orleans, and might be ready to leave Texas-El Paso. His troubles with the NCAA were relatively minor, and the truth is most coaches carry some baggage.

Doug Gottlieb: An analyst for CBS Sports, he is openly campaigning for the job despite no head-coaching experience. Put him in the long-shot category.

Steve Henson: His time to be a head coach is coming soon. The Oklahoma assistant was on Kruger’s staff at UNLV.

Steve Lavin: Some boosters are promoting Lavin, the former UCLA and St. John’s coach, and he has a shot. If Rice’s personality was considered too bland, Lavin is the opposite. He fits the Vegas image.

Dan Majerle: The three-time NBA All-Star is rising as a coaching prospect at Grand Canyon. His team beat San Diego State this season, something the Rebels have not done recently. His candidacy is intriguing.

Marvin Menzies: He has valuable connections here, after spending the 2004-05 season on Kruger’s staff. Menzies has been a consistent winner at New Mexico State while working with few financial resources.

Leon Rice: Boise State’s coach has built one of the Mountain West’s best basketball programs at a football school. Football is only a rumor at UNLV, and so far Rice’s candidacy is mentioned only as a rumor.

Kelvin Sampson: He took Oklahoma to the Final Four in 2002. He was fired at Indiana in 2008 because of NCAA violations. He has resurfaced at Houston, where he’s winning. He’s shady, but he’s good, and he’s probably going to get a serious look.

Todd Simon: With a strong finish to the season — meaning a conference title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament — the Rebels’ interim coach has a chance to land the job. The 35-year-old’s audition is off to a strong start.

Reggie Theus: A finalist when Rice was hired in 2011, Theus has not been a success in his current coaching stop at Cal State Northridge. The program has been investigated and penalized for academic fraud. One of UNLV’s greatest players, Theus will need to clear his name and talk his way into the job. He’s a former Pitino assistant and NBA head coach. There are boosters who still strongly support him.

Brad Underwood: This is an under-the-radar name. Underwood is 71-13 in his third season at Stephen F. Austin. He’s a graduate of Kansas State, where there could be a vacancy this spring.

John Welch: Here’s an option from the Tarkanian coaching tree. Welch played for the Rebels from 1985-86, coached under Tarkanian at UNLV and Fresno State and is an assistant to George Karl with the Sacramento Kings.

Jay Wright: Is he ready to leave Villanova? Is the price right? Highly unlikely. But he was a Rebels assistant from 1992 to 1994, so he gets mentioned. He’s making a reported $2.7 million per year. If Pitino is really interested, is pursuing Wright a fantasy?

— Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.

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