Friday, Dec. 6, 2013 | 2 a.m.
In the home locker room at Arizona’s McKale Center, the Wildcats used to keep a basketball displayed on a shelf. As the top seed at the 1991 Tucson regional, UNLV used that locker room during its first- and second-round victories in the NCAA Tournament.
After the second victory, against Georgetown, UNLV returned to the locker room and grabbed that ball. Many Rebels were recruited by Arizona and vice versa, so UNLV wanted to leave a memento for its rival. Every Rebel, including current coach Dave Rice, autographed the ball and left it there for the Wildcats.
“It was one of those fun things that adds to the mystique of the rivalry,” Rice said.
On Saturday at the McKale Center, the teams meet for the 18th time, only this time No. 2 Arizona (8-0) is the lone team perched near the top of college basketball. The game tips at 2:15 p.m. and will air on ESPN2.
What made the rivalry so good through the end of Jerry Tarkanian’s tenure started with recruiting battles between him and then-Arizona coach Lute Olson. Olson, who coached Long Beach State the season after Tarkanian’s departure, went head-to-head with Tark on several players in Southern California.
The one that may have tipped the scales, though, came from Tarkanian’s backyard at Bishop Gorman High.
“The recruiting wars were huge. I probably was one of the biggest reasons,” said former Gael and Wildcat point guard Matt Othick.
Othick had committed to the Rebels but didn’t sign a letter of intent. Arizona assistant Kevin O’Neill kept recruiting Othick, which upset the Rebels. Then, when Tarkanian brought in Greg Anthony to play point guard, Othick switched because he didn’t think he would play.
Tarkanian has since admitted that he probably scared off Othick with Anthony. Tarkanian couldn’t convince Othick that there was room in the backcourt for both, something that still stuck with him, he told the Sun for a 2009 story.
“We would have won a second national title if he was on the 1991 team,” Tarkanian said of Othick. “When Greg fouled out in the Final Four loss against Duke, I could have slid Matt over to the point guard spot and we wouldn’t have missed a beat.”
Both programs have been through a lot since those intense games in the late '80s and early '90s, including UNLV’s NCAA Tournament victory against the Wildcats on Anderson Hunt’s last-second 3-pointer in 1989. Arizona’s handoff from Olson to current coach Sean Miller, with a couple of brief appearances by O’Neill and Russ Pennell in between, has gone rather smoothly.
Miller, in his fifth season, already has an Elite Eight appearance, and with a victory Saturday he’ll also have the No. 1 ranking. UNLV forward Khem Birch doesn’t need to wait to declare the Wildcats the best.
“Even though it doesn’t say it on paper, they are the No. 1 team in the country,” Birch said.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he thinks the Rebels (3-3) won't pull off the upset. If UNLV is even going to keep it close, the team is going to have to play by far its best overall game of the season.
Arizona freshman Aaron Gordon (13 points and 9.1 rebounds per game) gets most of the headlines, and local basketball fans will recognize a couple of faces in former Findlay Prep players Brandon Ashley and Nick Johnson (combined 29 ppg). Those guys are all great, Rice said, but he pointed to point guard T.J. McConnell as the squad’s engine.
“He’s changed their team,” Rice said of the Duquesne transfer.
McConnell is averaging 6.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game as a pass-first guard who knows how to set up his guys in good position and then get out of the way. He has plenty of weapons to play off of, too, with freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski adding to a formidable front line.
“This year’s team is deadly,” Othick said.
He said that when he watches Saturday’s game, he won’t have any internal conflict about which side he wants to win. He may think about how things would have worked out at UNLV, but his career at Arizona went very well and he’s a loyal Wildcat.
When his Arizona team got back from its own NCAA Tournament regional, they saw the autographed ball in their locker room. The Wildcats and Rebels were set to meet the next weekend in Seattle, so Othick said the team brought the ball with the intention of giving it to the Rebels after defeating them. Instead, Seton Hall upset Arizona and UNLV won both games to move on to the Final Four, where it lost to Duke.
And if you believe Tarkanian, Othick staying home would have been the difference for UNLV in that game. Of course, had Othick not changed his mind and gone to Arizona, the battles back then may not have been quite as intense, and then both sides would have lost.
“Looking back, it was just a great rivalry,” Othick said.