This year’s Runnin’ Rebels hearken to glory days

In the fall of 1989, Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson made for an imposing pair. In many cases, preseason hype is nothing but hot air. But there was no doubt the big show about to play off the Strip was college basketball’s real deal.

Augmon was an All-American among five starters returning from a UNLV team that reached the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight. Joining the crew was Johnson, the nation’s top junior college player from Odessa, Texas.

Johnson was one of the Rebels’ two newcomers. The other was Dave Rice, a role player and a late addition to the roster.

“There was a sense that we were going to be very good,” Rice said, understating the sense of what UNLV was about to unleash.

The Rebels were ranked No. 1 in the nation in the preseason. The media guide, featuring a photo of Augmon and Johnson, carried the title, “The Big Year Is Here!” It was truth in advertising, not just hype and hyperbole.

The season produced coach Jerry Tarkanian’s first and only national champion­ship, and it concluded in storybook style as UNLV demolished Duke by 30 points in the 1990 NCAA title game. It was a team that captured the imagination of the nation.

“At the time, we were treated as one of the NBA teams,” Augmon said.

The Rebels’ relentless pressure defense and fast-break style of play – not to mention a colorful coach and celebrities sitting courtside amid a Vegas backdrop – turned them into the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers of the college game.

“Everywhere we went, every game was a sellout and people were waiting at hotels for autographs,” Rice said. “It certainly was an exciting time to be part of something.”

UNLV compiled a 69-6 record over two seasons. It was the peak of the un­forgettable Tarkanian era.

“When I look back, those were fantastic years for me,” Augmon said. “I would never change it for the world, and I’m glad I stayed all four years here.”

In April 2011, Rice was called back from Brigham Young to coach his alma mater. One of his first calls went to Augmon, then a Denver Nuggets assistant. While cynics say UNLV basketball never can recapture its sensational past, Rice and Augmon are thinking differently.

“If I didn’t believe that, they should find a different coach,” Rice said. “I believe that we’re a long way from being at the level the program was at that time. But with the growth of the town, with our facilities, our style of play and the tradition, I believe the sky is the limit. What that exactly means, I don’t know. I think the best is yet to come.”

Augmon added, “I believe that we’re getting it back there. Coach Dave and myself know how it’s done. I think we’re on the right track.”

After two decades marked mostly by mediocrity, another big year is here. The Rebels are No. 18 in The Associated Press poll, their first preseason ranking since 1992. There is a sense Rice’s second team can be good, as in nationally significant, again.

Instead of Augmon and Johnson, the co-stars now are senior guard Anthony Marshall and junior forward Mike Moser, the team’s only returning starters. One of the nation’s top recruiting classes is headlined by power forward Anthony Bennett from Findlay Prep and shooting guard Katin Reinhardt from California.

“This being Coach Rice’s second year, he’s off to a great start,” Moser said. “He’s definitely trying to bring back that tradition. We’ve got the facilities and we’ve got the coaching, and one of the biggest things is the fan support. With consistent recruiting and getting the top guys, if that continues, I don’t see why UNLV can’t be top 10 in the preseason rankings every year.”

Marshall grew up in Las Vegas, graduated from Mojave High School and was the first big-time local recruit to sign with the Rebels during former coach Lon Kruger’s tenure.

“One of the main reasons I came to UNLV is I wanted to try to get it back to those glory days, so to speak,” Marshall said. “I also wanted to be a role model for the young kids and show them you don’t have to go away to be successful.”

Kruger briefly returned the Rebels to glory. In 2006-07, UNLV won 30 games and reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1991. But the program’s growth stalled, and its promise went undelivered.

The Rebels’ past five seasons resulted in one NCAA Tournament win, one National Invitation Tournament appearance (a loss at Kentucky) and three opening-round NCAA exits, including last season’s loss to underdog Colorado.

“We went through some years where we had some rough stretches,” Marshall said. “Now we’re getting back to some pretty good things.”

Marshall and Moser, a UCLA transfer, each were recruited by Kruger, but they are perfect fits for Rice’s fast-paced system. “I feel like he was the most ideal coach to come in for this whole situation,” Moser said.

Rice is the offensive specialist, determined to teach his team to run. Augmon is a do-everything assistant, determined to show the players what made the Rebels dominant during the Tarkanian era and recruit the same type of players.

“We practiced harder than anyone in the country,” Augmon said. “We have to play hard. Coach Tark would always say, and Coach Dave and myself always kind of echo it from him, our offense starts on the defensive end.”

The first sign of progress arrived last November, when UNLV upset No. 1 North Carolina 90-80 at Orleans Arena. That game proved, Rice said, “We can truly compete on a national level.”

It also gave Rice credibility with elite recruits such as Bennett and Reinhardt.

“When I was being recruited, he had a vision of what UNLV basketball was going to become, and he wanted me to be a big part of it,” Reinhardt said. “He was not selling me on that, but he wanted me to be a big part of that resurrection, I guess you could say. I just wanted to do that, too.

“I could have gone to Texas, Syracuse, Baylor or big-time schools like that, but I wanted to be a part of something special. I wasn’t familiar with UNLV that much. I talked to my dad and he said, ‘The ’90s were crazy,’ and this and that. I started watching some highlight videos and seeing Larry Johnson and all those guys. I wanted to be a big part of that and help Coach Rice try to bring that back.”

As the Rebels prepare to open the season today, against Northern Arizona in front of a possible sellout crowd at the Thomas & Mack Center, there is some Final Four talk surrounding the team. It might prove to be over-the-top hype.

It’s not quite the fall of 1989, and UNLV has not won an NCAA Tournament game since 2008. But Rice is beginning to spark the type of enthusiasm and promise the program has rarely experienced over the past 20 years.

“There is plenty of unfinished business. But I am proud of the progress we’ve made,” Rice said. “The guys we’ve tried to recruit are guys who love to play and hate to lose. I’ve always thought, even with our recruiting, there’s some sort of tipping point – and you don’t know why, there’s always a little luck – where it becomes trendy to go to UNLV again.

“I remember those years playing here … Coach Tark offered me a scholarship, and I knew that I was going to come in as a role player at best. Someone asked me, ‘Why did you come to UNLV?’ and I said, ‘I wanted to go someplace that had a legitimate chance to win a national championship.’ ”

More than two decades later, filling a greater role, Rice is pitching that line to recruits.

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

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