Before the days of clever marketing catch phrases that were created to increase the brand value of certain areas of college sports, names like Power Five or mid-major were non-existent.
There were simply elite college basketball teams, and then the rest. UNLV was an elite college basketball program.
When talking about the elite programs of the late 80s and early 90s, the Runnin’ Rebels were mentioned in the same breath as Kentucky, North Carolina, Michigan and Duke, and they had the players, merchandise sales and the national TV games to match.
For a brief moment, Duke vs. UNLV was one of the most intense rivalries in all of college basketball, highlighted by the Rebels’ famous victory over Duke, 103-73, in the 1990 national championship game.
Just one year later, the intensity reached a boiling point, fueled by the cultural and racial issues of the time, as a predominantly black UNLV team squared off again against the predominantly white Duke squad. The Blue Devils avenged their loss from the previous year, upsetting UNLV in the Final Four, en route to the national championship.
Since that game, Duke has won five titles and made seven final four appearances while UNLV’s best showing has been a 2007 Sweet 16 appearance. That’s it.
The program looked as though it was returning to relevance after a stretch of six NCAA tournament appearances over seven years between 2007 and 2013, culminating with Anthony Bennett being selected with first overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.
Since then, things have just gotten weird at UNLV, and the once mighty program has slid further into disarray.
In the 2016 calendar year alone, the Rebels have had four different head coaches. Dave Rice was a back-up guard on the famed 1990-91 Rebels team and was fired in January after an up-and-down five-year stint. Assistant coach Todd Simon was then named interim head coach for the remainder of the season.
The Rebels then seemed to have landed one the NCAA’s hottest coaches in Chris Beard, who had just guided Arkansas-Little Rock to an outstanding 30-5 record and a first-round upset of Purdue in the NCAA Tournament. However, after just 19 days as head coach at UNLV, Beard announced that he was leaving Las Vegas and signed on to be the head coach at Texas Tech.
Then, just a few days after Beard’s bizarre departure, UNLV announced it hired New Mexico State’s head coach Marvin Menzies to take over for the departed Beard.
Four head coaches in less than six months.
Meanwhile, following an uninspiring season that saw the Rebels go just 18-15, five different underclassmen declared for the NBA draft. Losing five underclassmen from a 30-win Duke or Kentucky team has become the norm in college basketball, but not an 18-win team from the Mountain West Conference.
The Rebels did end up having two players drafted in the second round in Patrick McCaw (Golden State via Milwaukee) and Stephen Zimmerman (Orlando), but having five players declare from a mediocre team reeks of instability.
Menzies has a difficult task ahead of him to help rebuild UNLV to national prominence. He’ll have to start his monumental task with a roster that includes just three returning players from last year. Sophomore guard Jalen Poyser is an elite prospect who will be the main scoring threat for the Rebels this season, but beyond that, the rest of the roster is a complete unknown.
With all of this unrest in Las Vegas, the current state of the Runnin’ Rebels is more likely to mirror the program’s “Tumbleweed Tech” days of the early 1970s, pre-Jerry Tarkanian, as opposed to the high-flying mega-stars of the early 1990s when Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon where a nightly feature on Sports Center and every other teenager in the United States was rocking a red UNLV Starter cap.
Oh how the mighty have fallen.