Monday, Oct. 22, 2018 | 2 a.m.
As Noah Robotham named his favorite UNLV basketball players, it was no surprise Sam Smith and Robert Smith, two members of the Hardway Eight 1977 Final Four team, were at the top of the list.
After all, Robotham, a Las Vegas native, spent many days during his childhood practicing at the YMCA where Sam Smith is a fixture. And many in town know Robert Smith, a respected coach and the Rebels radio announcer.
Robotham, the Rebels’ senior point guard, didn’t stop his list there, switching to another era of Rebel success and mentioning the likes of Wink Adams and Michael Umeh from the 2007 Sweet 16 team. And last week at practice, he noted, 1990 Final Four MVP Anderson Hunt randomly stopped by, which was a thrill.
“This list goes on and on,” Robotham said last week during the Mountain West Media Summit.
As Robotham shared his stories, which dated to grade school, when his teammate and best friend was Alex Tarkanian, former UNLV coaching legend Jerry Tarkanian’s grandson, coach Marvin Menzies’ excitement was obvious.
With each name, Menzies flashed a smile and become more animated. When Robotham finished, Menzies loudly proclaimed, “I am getting goosebumps, baby. Let’s go!”
Sometimes, a history lesson is a good reminder of where the legendary program once was under Tarkanian and where Menzies envisions it returning. The Rebels haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament (NIT, either) since 2013, and while the rebuild Menzies has been tasked with is progressing at pace, it hasn’t resonated with fans. Paid home attendance averaged just 10,093 a game last season, and far fewer actually showed up.
But one night last season was different. One night showed supporters still cared. It was downright refreshing.
When top-10 ranked Arizona came to town in early December, and with the Rebels sporting a 6-1 record that included a near 30-point win against Utah, the Thomas & Mack Center was rocking. The atmosphere was everything those promotional photos indicate: Loud and proud students, the band playing enthusiastically and fans on their feet.
The Rebels played inspired that night. They led in the second half and had a good shot at winning before they fell in overtime, 91-88.
“I forgot what that place felt like,” said Menzies, who in the early 2000s was an assistant on coach Lon Kruger’s staff. “That was a special night. Even though we fell a little short in overtime, I did walk away and go, ‘Man, once we get this thing rolling again, you are going to have one of the best teams on the West Coast playing right out of Las Vegas.’”
But people aren’t going to simply show up because there’s a game on the schedule, especially when the sports entertainment dollar is stretched thin in the winter with the Golden Knights.
While many locals still adore their Rebels and — good times and bad — won’t give up their support, the backing has been from a distance.
We’ve seen peaks and valleys with attendance over the years. Rebel games were the toughest ticket in town to find during the Tarkanian era. Attendance dipped drastically during Rollie Massimino’s tenure. But by the time Lon Kruger and Dave Rice got the program in the 2000s, the Rebels returned to the tournament for the first time since Tarkanian and attendance picked up to more than 15,000 in 2012-13.
It’s those nights locals such as Robotham grew up on. It’s those such nights the fifth-year senior, who transferred from Akron, have eagerly awaited to return.
“When you have people at the Thomas & Mack, I don’t think there are many places in the country that are like that,” Robotham said. “It’s an electrifying feeling.”
There’s one way to bring them back — winning.
Despite being projected to finish sixth in the Mountain West, the Rebels will take another step in the winning direction this season.
They have two proven commodities in senior leaders Robotham and post player Shakur Juiston, as well as some younger pieces Menzies feels will — eventually — combine to lead UNLV back to the tournament.
There are 10 freshman and sophomore scholarship players on the roster, including the likes of sophomores Amauri Hardy and Tervell Beck and top freshman Bryce Hamilton, who rightfully give Menzies reason for hope.
Remember, Menzies inherited a mess when he was hired three years ago and is still guiding the program back to stability. What’s admirable about Menzies is he wanted to be the Rebels coach so badly that he wasn’t worried about not being the university’s first, second, third or fourth pick.
What’s also admirable: win or lose — and they won just 11 games in 2016-17 — Menzies hasn’t wavered in being positive about the future. He’s determined to deliver a winner and bring that excitement back to Las Vegas.
He’s determined to produce players the next Noah Robotham, some middle-school-aged kid whose father will take him to the Mack for a few games this winter, will list as his favorite.