When early-arriving fans walked into the Thomas & Mack Center for last February's UNLV-San Diego State showdown, the first thing they probably noticed was a huge "THIS IS ARE HOUSE" banner hanging where the visiting team's student section usually sits.
The presence of the logo of San Diego State's student section known as "The Show" initially made it appear to be an embarrassing grammatical error by the Aztecs. In reality, it was merely the clever handiwork of a group of UNLV students who planted it to make it look that way.
Pranks like that one, coupled with consistently entertaining, meaningful basketball, have made San Diego State-UNLV into perhaps the West's premier hoops rivalry the past few seasons, challenged by only Gonzaga-Saint Mary's. The rivalry between the Aztecs and Rebels will likely reach a crescendo this season with both teams ranked in the preseason top 20, loaded with elite talent and expected to once again battle one-another for the Mountain West crown.
"It has become a tremendous rivalry because our fan bases are very competitive and the games have been as well," UNLV coach Dave Rice said. "We played two two-point games last year with San Diego State winning at their place and us winning here at UNLV. I joked with their coaching staff this summer, we'll probably have a couple two-point games this year."
If the games are as dramatic this season as they were a year ago, the only downside will be the knowledge that it could be the rivalry's final chapter. Whereas UNLV will remain in the Mountain West for the foreseeable future, San Diego State will move all its sports but football to the Big West beginning in 2013 in order to enable its football program to join the Big East.
Rice and San Diego State coach Steve Fisher have yet to discuss the possibility of a non-conference series between the two programs because neither has begun assembling their 2013-14 schedules yet. Both insist they're open to continuing the rivalry after this season, whether it's on a sporadic basis or annually.
"I think it could be something we do every year, one year here, one year there," Fisher said. "We don't have anything set for next year as we go forward, but I think both teams would like to continue to play one-another. I'm sure we will, whether it's immediately or a year from now, it will happen."
It's refreshing to hear that because conference realignment has jeopardized rivalries with far greater history and pedigree.
A non-conference series between rivals sometimes won't inspire the same emotion since league titles aren't on the line, but annual matchups between Louisville and Kentucky, Marquette and Wisconsin or Missouri and Illinois show that doesn't have to be the case. Plus, with both UNLV and San Diego State primed to remain two of the West's top programs for at least the next few years, even a November or December matchup won't lack for significance.
"I certainly hoped throughout the whole process they were staying in our league because of what they've meant to our league, but that seems to be the climate of college athletics right now," Rice said. "I certainly understand they had to do what's best for them, but it has been a great rivalry and I'm sure that's something both staffs will visit about."
In case the UNLV-San Diego State series does go into hiatus after this season, at least it promises to finish with a flourish.
A conference game that once didn't resonate because of San Diego State's irrelevance and UNLV's mediocrity has risen in stature the past five years thanks to the rebirth of both programs. The Aztecs have been to the NCAA tournament three straight years, the Rebels have gone five times in six seasons and both programs are nearing their peak thanks to unprecedented recruiting success.
If UNLV is a slight favorite in the Mountain West this winter, it's only because the Rebels boast their most talented roster since the Jerry Tarkanian era. UNLV parlayed Rice's vow to put the Runnin' back in Rebels into a consensus top 10 recruiting class and a trio of big-time transfers, raising hopes UNLV can be a major presence in college basketball again as soon as this season.
USC transfer Bryce Jones and sweet-shooting consensus top 50 guard Katin Reinhardt were the first marquee recruits to buy into Rice's plan. Coveted Pittsburgh transfer Khem Birch, McDonald's All-American Anthony Bennett and top 75 forward Savon Goodman followed suit in the coming months. Now, with all-conference forward Mike Moser, slashing point guard Anthony Marshall and defensive stopper Justin Hawkins all returning, the roster is such an embarrassment of riches that Rice's greatest challenge may be finding playing time to keep everyone happy.
"Vegas is loaded this year," Fisher said. "They're going to be really, really good."
And yet San Diego State has a chance to be just as good or perhaps even better if its newcomers bolster the frontcourt and provide the depth the Aztecs lacked last season.
Between top recruit Winston Shepard, Utah transfer J.J. O'Brien and St. John's transfer Dwayne Polee Jr., San Diego State has three forwards tall and long enough to defend the post yet quick and athletic enough to play on the perimeter. Add returner DeShawn Stephens and bulky Virginia transfer James Johnson, who will be eligible in mid-December, and that gives Fisher plenty of options for whether he wants to go small or big to match up with opposing teams.
The strength of San Diego State's team, however, will still be the perimeter core that propelled the Aztecs to 26 wins last season. Mountain West player of the year Jamaal Franklin is the headliner because of his improving jump shot and ability to defend, rebound and get to the rim, but perimeter shooter Chase Tapley, steady point guard Xavier Thames and complementary pieces James Rahon and LaBradford Franklin are also back.
"The best compliment I can give them is they've become accustomed to winning," Rice said. "It doesn't seem to matter who they lose or who they have. They just continue to win basketball games."
There's enough mutual admiration between the two programs that perhaps an annual non-league game between the Aztecs and Rebels after this season isn't too far-fetched. With two deferential coaching staffs, two talent-laden rosters and two fan bases that love to hate one-another, everything is in place for the rivalry to continue to blossom.
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