New UNLV coach Dave Rice played for the Rebels during the height of their rivalry with Arizona two decades ago, so it's no surprise that one of his top scheduling priorities was revitalizing the series with the Wildcats.
Rice and Arizona coach Sean Miller agreed last week to a four-year series that will begin at the McKale Center during the 2012-13 season and alternate between Las Vegas and Tucson thereafter. UNLV and Arizona have played sparingly since Rice's playing days, going 15 years without facing one another after a 1991 meeting before splitting four games from 2006 to 2009.
"We are really excited about the series," Rice said by phone. "We want to play a really competitive schedule and we want to play top-notch teams and this one from a geographical standpoint makes sense. They're in the Southwest and so are we. It was definitely a priority to play Arizona because of the respect we have for them."
The initial rivalry between UNLV and Arizona erupted in the late 1980s when the Rebels and Wildcats fought annually for the title of best team in the West. The two rivals waged fierce battles on the court and the recruiting trail, with Jerry Tarkanian dubbing Lute Olson as "Midnight Lute" after Arizona wrested top prospects Tom Tolbert and Matt Othick away from UNLV late in the recruiting process.
The animosity between Tarkanian and Olson is in stark contrast to the mutual respect between Rice and Miller. The two coaches got to know each other when Miller's Xavier team beat Rice's BYU squad in the first round of the 2007 NCAA tournament and have become close since then.
"Coach Miller and his staff are doing a great job," Rice said. "Arizona's going to be one of the premier programs in the country for years to come. Sean's become not just someone I respect as a coach but he's actually become a friend. We really cheer hard for the Wildcats because of the kind of person he is."
Rice has great memories of the McKale Center, first as a player when UNLV won a pair of NCAA tournament games there on the way to the Final Four and later as a BYU assistant when Jimmer Fredette went off for 49 points there as a junior.
He hopes UNLV's upcoming series with Arizona only creates more great moments.