It's showtime in Vegas

"It's something you have to see at least once in your lifetime," one UNLV senior says of game day. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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The biggest showroom in Las Vegas is not at Caesars Palace, Bellagio or the Wynn. It's on the UNLV campus, where the behemoth 18,776-seat Thomas & Mack Center is home to the longest-running show in Sin City: Runnin' Rebels basketball.

And it's on this stage where UNLV will be joined by No. 7 San Diego State and No. 8 BYU in the Mountain West Conference tournament, which runs through Saturday.

Good, ol' days new again

Jerry Tarkanian put UNLV on the basketball map with a national title in 1990. And now, under coach Lon Kruger, the Rebels are a force to be reckoned with again. For a gallery of images of the Thomas & Mack Center, click here.Photo Gallery

The spectacle of a University of Nevada, Las Vegas game starts four minutes before tip-off, when the red carpet is literally rolled out for the hoops squad. The national anthem -- often sung by a headliner -- comes next, followed by someone like Carrot Top or former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian asking for, "Lights, please." Then, in an otherwise dark arena, a red light shines on the long-mustached Hey Reb mascot at center court, indoor fireworks explode overhead, and the public address announcer says, "Ladies and gentlemen, your Runnin' Rebels."

With that, the Rebels are off and running. So is one of college basketball's most unique experiences.

"It's something you have to see at least once in your lifetime," said Jon Goldman, a UNLV senior from Cherry Hills, N.J. "If I didn't live in Vegas it would be on my bucket list."

When you play in the entertainment capital of the world, people expect a good show. The Thomas & Mack Center not only delivers one, it pioneered the concept.

"We invented the show," said Jeff Jacobs, a 1997 UNLV accounting graduate. "When Tark started with the fireworks back in the '80s, it wasn't happening in the NBA. It wasn't happening anywhere."

Indeed, UNLV games are a happening.

Crowds at the Thomas & Mack, which are made up of equal parts students, alumni and locals, are engaged and vocal. They like taunting opponents with the familiar, lyrical chant of "Reb-els." Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas" is the unofficial fight song.

The facility is affectionately known as the Shark Tank, as in Tark the Shark. Inside, the hardwood floor is named for Tarkanian, the hardheaded, towel-chewing former coach.

With an average overall student age of 26, UNLV is the ultimate commuter school. Off campus, Vegas has a transient population. But all that changes when the Rebels take the court at the Thomas & Mack Center, bringing town and gown together to cheer on the city's favorite sons.

"It's remarkable," Goldman said, "how a bunch of guys throwing a ball around can bring so many people together."

Tarkanian is still remembered fondly as the man who put UNLV on the map, winning 10 consecutive conference championships in the 1980s and early '90s and a national title. Today, coach Lon Kruger is recognized as the man who brought the program back.

"We went down in a giant ball of flames after Tark left and you never saw any of the guys from that era around," Jacobs said. "When Coach Kruger came in, he opened up the doors and now you see Tark and LJ [Larry Johnson] behind the bench. Coach Kruger brought back the winning culture and built a bridge to our glory days. You hear Greg Anthony talking about 'my Rebels' all the time and that didn't happen before."

Reminders of those glory days are everywhere at the Thomas & Mack. Hanging in the rafters are the NCAA tournament championship banner from 1990 and retired numbers that belonged to Larry Johnson, Sidney Green, Reggie Theus, Glen Gondrezick, Stacey Augmon, Armon Gilliam, Ricky Sobers and Greg Anthony.

Las Vegas long ago gave up marketing itself as a family destination, but UNLV hoops games are family affairs.

"You see fans of every age in the arena," Goldman said. "It's the place where locals want to go and families want to go. If you are a student with a job, the day the schedule comes out you ask for those days off."

UNLV also is about the only game in town.

"In terms of team sports, the Runnin' Rebels are it," said Jon Sandler, the radio play-by-play voice of UNLV basketball.

Sure, Triple-A baseball has a niche. And minor league hockey has done well. But nothing compares with the long-term success of UNLV basketball.

The Rebels are the city's team, but Rebels basketball rarely spills over to the part of the city that made Las Vegas famous.

"The Rebel experience has nothing to do with The Strip," Jacobs said.

Instead, UNLV hoops fans congregate at places like Born and Raised, an establishment owned and operated by locals for locals, or head to Raising Cane's, a fried chicken chain across the street from the campus.

Moose's Beach House Barn and Grill is a popular student haunt, replete with obligatory pool tables. For a more upscale campus hangout, there's a Gordon Biersch brewpub down the street. If you want to get away from the college crowd, The Strip and its endless possibilities are just blocks away.

Of course, if the Rebels aren't winning, the locals aren't always in a partying frame of mind.

"Vegas is a tough town," Sandler said. "It's about immediate gratification and everything in town is significantly tied to whether you won or lost. Whether consciously or subconsciously, winning and losing impacts all levels of our lives in Vegas."

With a 23-7 record and an NCAA tournament appearance in the offing for the fourth time in five seasons, these Rebels are clearly on a hot streak.

"Hardwood Havens" is a series of vignettes that looks at campus experiences on basketball weekends across the country. Doug Ward is a Southern California-based freelance writer.