Arizona and UNLV will tip off a four-game series today and, well, maybe it’s about time they get serious.
After Jerry Tarkanian led the Rebels to the 1990 NCAA title, the two regional rivals avoided each other for 16 years, and have only played four times since then — all between Lute Olson’s final season and Sean Miller’s first, when the aches and pains of UA’s elongated transition were most acute.
There’s much more on the line now. With a win today, UA is expected to gain the No. 1 ranking in both major polls for the first time in over a decade. And while UNLV has stumbled to a 3-3 start this season, the Rebels won 51 games over coach Dave Rice’s first two seasons and were picked to finish second in the Mountain West this season.
“We’re excited to get an opportunity to play against Arizona,” Rice said. It’s “two of the premier programs in the West.”
Another reason: Miller and Rice are surprisingly intertwined, even though neither has worked or played with each other before.
Both are filling big shoes
While there were two interim coaches between Olson and Miller, and a heap of interim and permanent coaches between Tarkanian and Rice, both took over programs that have long held themselves to a high standard.
So if Miller felt any heat during his third season of 2011-12, when the Wildcats were bounced in the first round of the NIT, Rice may be doing so now with the Rebels struggling to mesh together a talented roster with many newcomers.
“I would think it’s probably similar to what Sean has felt,” Rice said. “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure and there’s pressure the first day you step on campus. There’s a standard of excellence. But we do the best we can do and we’re excited about the progress we’re making.”
Both are Livengood’s guys
One of Jim Livengood’s final acts as UA athletic director was to hire Miller away from Xavier in April 2009. By December of that year, he was introduced as UNLV’s athletic director. And 16 months after that, he asked Rice to replace Lon Kruger as the Rebels’ head coach.
Livengood’s choice wasn’t an easy one, being between Rice and the popular Reggie Theus, a former star under Tarkanian who had head coaching experience at New Mexico State and with the Sacramento Kings — and had the public support of Tarkanian himself.
But Rice was a role player on Tarkanian’s national champions who had become the associate head coach at BYU, Livengood’s alma mater and the school that smacked UA during each of Miller’s first two seasons.
Rice is also a longtime friend of Jack Murphy, the former UA manager and administrative aide who is now the head coach at NAU. Rice said he came to know Murphy when he helped Tarkanian’s program as a high schooler. Today, Murphy is also Livengood’s son-in-law.
Neither will ever forget Jimmer
While engineering much of the BYU offense under head coach Dave Rose, Rice had an enviable tool to work with in Jimmer Fredette.
He’s the scoring machine who, among other things, dropped 49 points on the Wildcats in a 30-point BYU win at McKale Center on Dec. 28, 2009.
“His performance was incredible,” Miller said after the game. (Miller was not available to comment for this story.)
A year later, Fredette scored 33 points while BYU beat the Elite Eight-bound Wildcats 87-65 in Salt Lake City. After that game, Miller shook Fredette’s hand in surrender.
“He said, ‘I tell you what, if you need anything from anybody, I’m your guy,’ ” Fredette said of Miller. “He said, ‘anything you need, you let me know and I’ll get it for you.’ I was like, ‘All right. Thanks, coach. Appreciate it.’ ”
They also know Roscoe Smith pretty well
Now a junior forward for the — Rebels, Smith was a freshman starter for the UConn team that beat Arizona in the 2011 Elite Eight during its improbable run through the Big East and NCAA tournaments.
“I remember a lot” about that game, Smith said. “They definitely had a lot of athletic guys, and Derrick Williams.”
But… “that year, we just had an outstanding leader in (guard) Kemba Walker. He led us vocally and more in action … so we just basically followed him.”
This year, the Rebels are following Smith, especially on the boards. He’s leading the nation in rebounding with an unreal average of 16.2 per game.
“He goes after every ball,” Rice said. “He’s got a great knack for it and he just truly believes every ball is his.”
They’re family guys, too
While Rice and Miller go head-to-head on the floor and on the recruiting circuit, they actually sat together last July at a basketball showcase while watching players they were not targeting.
They were watching their sons, Cameron Miller and Travis Rice, play for the same Southern California-based travel team.
“It was nice to go to a basketball game and just be a dad,” Rice said. “There’s not enough time in this job to do that very often.”