Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019 | 2 a.m.
This was the most coveted ticket in Las Vegas. Some nights, it was impossible to get a seat in the Thomas & Mack Center, regardless of the UNLV basketball team’s opponent.
The fireworks display in the pregame was revolutionary for college athletics, bringing some of flair from the shows a few miles up the road on the Strip. The style of basketball was also ahead of its time, with plenty of high-flying baskets in transition and suffocating defense on both ends of the court.
The Rebels rarely lost at home, mainly because that home court advantage made it impossible for the opposition, and also because those legendary UNLV teams were stacked with a who’s who of the sport’s best players.
Times have surely changed, and that’s a true shame. There are so many open seats for home games that it’s become an eyesore, especially for the players who surely notice the sections of vacant seats and wonder where the support has gone.
It’s gotten so bad that there’s a reminder to stand up and cheer during the fight song. What used to be a great advantage is no more, as teams like Loyola-Marymount and Valparaiso have won at the Mack this season, and won with relative ease.
The announced attendance was just 7,881 for Wednesday’s Mountain West opener, a thrilling 78-76 victory against Colorado State where the Rebels erased an 11-point second half deficit and gave those few bodies at the Mack a reason to celebrate.
Dissecting why nobody is here and figuring out how to bring people back isn’t that hard. If the Rebels had a winning program, which it consistently hasn’t over the last five years, its fan base would make regular appearances on game days. It is that simple.
Those supporters, at least judging from social media, seem convinced the best way to change the program’s following is by parting ways with coach Marvin Menzies.
That’s an awful idea for many reasons, most notably because Menzies is a qualified coach who has brought in many pieces — Amauri Hardy, Joel Ntambwe and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua — who could have the program near the top of the Mountain West next season.
Menzies earned the respect of many in 2016 when he took the job after previously being passed over for the position and knowing it would be a tough rebuild. The guy was left with two players and virtually no time to build a roster, which is something his detractors seem to forget. The first year, an 11-win season with humbling defeat after humbling defeat, was a wash.
Menzies has two years remaining on his UNLV contract and would be owed his base pay of $800,000 if terminated. That amount is significant. Remember, the university is in the last year of paying Dave Rice’s contract, meaning that firing Menzies after this year would equal another two years of paying two coaches.
When you are bleeding money from a lack of fan support on basketball home dates, you can’t go around spending loosely on coaches, especially when you have a good man already at the helm of the program.
But Las Vegas has plenty of money, Menzies’ detractors will argue. Just look at the Strip or a big booster for the funds to hit the reset button, they say.
What an awful idea. That only gives a booster an opinion on who to hire as coach, essentially handcuffing Athletic Director Desiree Reed-Francois in managing her programs out of fear the booster will stop giving.
While there are plenty of notable coaches whom critics feel would be a good fit at UNLV, it’s not that easy. Who would want to come to a place where a coach isn’t given time to build a program? Who would want to come to a place where you are consistently looking over your shoulder after every defeat?
And, most importantly, who would want to come to a place with all of these empty seats?
The best way to win is by letting Menzies finish what he’s started. His players are young and inexperienced, but they play hard for him as witnessed in the comeback to beat Colorado State. That shows they have bought into the system, which is vitally important in what Menzies is trying to build.
“A lot of grit. A lot of toughness,” Menzies said. “They are giving it their all. ...We aren’t going to go out easy.”
Yes, the Rebels have a 7-6 record. Yes, they will miss the postseason again, pending a miracle. Yes, they have some ugly defeats.
But the potential is there. The effort on this night speaks volumes. And so does the result, finding the way to get it done against Colorado State when they could have easily stopped playing.
It’s a shame you weren’t there to see it.