March Madness comes early. Just about a month early and in the form of what could be one of the best college basketball games in recent years: No. 1 UNLV at No. 2 Arkansas.
The rankings alone make today's matchup a rare treat. In the last 10 years, there have been only nine other games between Nos. 1 and 2.Now add in some other factors:
- UNLV's 30-game winning streak, 19 this season, and the Runnin' Rebels' defense of a national
championship that was taken away and returned amid some hard feelings.
- Arkansas' 23-1 mark, which includes 20 straight wins and the Razorbacks' determination to make their farewell season in the Southwest Conference a rousing success.
It gives you a game worthy of the attention and hype it has received.
"This has been a bigger buildup than the Final Four," Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson said. He should know about Final Fours since the Razorbacks joined the Runnin' Rebels there last year.
"There's never been a regular-season game with so much hype and expectation. I think it's great for the people here to bring a game of this magnitude to Barnhill."
That's Barnhill Arena, Arkansas' homecourt with a capacity of 9,000, half of the crowd to watch these teams last season at UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center. Barnhill crowds are among the loudest, staunchest and toughest in the country, but the Runnin' Rebels thrive on that and even play up to the road crowds.
This crowd appears ready for the challenge.
"The students started camping out today for the first-come, first-served seats," Richardson said Tuesday. "It's like we don't have another game left after this. The people think this is something they have to be here for. This is what's happening. It's been a hectic week."
It was for Jerry Tarkanian as well. The coach of the Runnin' Rebels was being besieged by callers, some from the media, the rest looking for a ticket.
"They're crying for tickets," he said. "They only gave us 30 and there are a lot of people who want to go. All they have to figure out is how to get a ticket."
What will be harder to figure out is which will give first - UNLV's swarming pressure defense which turns instantly into its offense or Arkansas' frantic pace at both ends of the court.
It's hard to imagine either team changing its style in any way.
"We don't ever talk about the other teams," Tarkanian said. "We prepare ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally and play the way we can and the way we talked about."
That means averaging 104.1 points per game, while holding opponents to 38 percent shooting and forcing an average of 20 turnovers per game.
"They are number one for a reason," Richardson said. "They have a great team and they can do so much."
Arkansas, which lost to Arizona in the preseason NIT final, averages 100.3 points per game and has also turned turnovers into points, forcing 22 per game.
"We know their team from last year and we know how tough they can be," Tarkanian said.
Last year's game, the first ever between the schools, was won by UNLV 101-93 and what happened then could be a key to Sunday.
Most of the scoring came from the guards on both teams, but UNLV managed to get some help from the frontcourt.
Arkansas has to stop forwards Larry Johnson, who leads UNLV at 22.7 per game, and Stacey Augmon, next at 17.4. The bulk of the defensive responsibility for the Razorbacks up front falls to Oliver Miller, a 6-foot-9 junior known for his bulk and blocks.
"No question Big O will be a key factor and we have to keep him in the game," Richardson said. "He helps us on defense because we can afford to take chances trapping with him blocking shots. This is a big game for Big O, but he has gone against some of the bigger and better players in the country."
Of the last nine 1-2 matchups, five were played on homecourts and the visitors won three. The top-ranked team managed a 7-2 record in those games.
You get the feeling no statistic can do this game justice.
"Every game is the most important game in the world," Richardson said. "I got on the scene late and every one is important to Nolan Richardson, every one of them. But I'd be lying if I said I haven't thought about this one a little more."