UNLV home games at the Thomas & Mack Center are unique in the college basketball world. From the red carpet rollout to the flashy introductions to the fireworks to the new on-court light projection display, the build-up to a Rebels game is unlike any other when it comes to creating a "big game" atmosphere.
Then the opening tipoff comes and … it's all for naught.
A year after posting a program-worst 11-21 record, fans aren't flocking to UNLV games, despite the turnaround in the quality of the team. The Rebels are currently 19-8 and tied for fourth place in the Mountain West, but that hasn't been enough to spin the turnstiles.
Last year, the Rebels drew 9,621 fans per game at the Thomas & Mack Center (10,120 overall home attendance when including their game against Duke at T-Mobile Arena). This season, the average has increased to 10,474 per game at the Mack (9,975 when including four off-campus home games).
Ten-thousand and change is a great number for a college basketball team, and UNLV will likely rank in the top 40 nationally for home attendance this season. But due to the cavernous nature of the Thomas & Mack (maximum capacity: 18,776), that leaves a half-empty building on most nights.
Head coach Marvin Menzies wants to get the program back to the point where big crowds are a regular occurrence.
"It's part of the process," Menzies said. "I think the more success you have in this town, the more people will jump on and hang on. It's better than last year, I think. I don't even know the numbers, I haven't tracked them. But I know that it feels better, and I think that as we continue to grow, one of the components of growing the program is growing the crowds, obviously."
UNLV's last home game, an 81-73 win over Air Force, drew just 9,027 fans. Put 9,000 people into a building that holds twice that many, and it's almost impossible to foster any kind of homecourt advantage.
The players are used to it. After Saturday's loss at San Diego State — a game in which homecourt advantage played a huge role, as SDSU jumped out to a big early lead in front of a loud sold-out crowd — Jovan Mooring said it would be nice to have that kind of fan support on the Rebels' side, but that he and his teammates don't count on it.
"Honestly I don't even think about whether or not people show up to our games anymore," Mooring said. "The fans that do show up, they're the die-hard fans, they're the ones that love to watch us play. We don't think about whether we're going to have a big crowd or not, we've just got to focus on getting a win."
Shakur Juiston expressed a similar sentiment before Tuesday's practice. UNLV hosts Fresno State on Wednesday in a game that could have big ramifications in the Mountain West standings and seeding for the conference tournament (Fresno is in third place, one game ahead of UNLV), but Juiston said the Rebels have to be ready to play no matter the size of the crowd.
"Coaches around the world always have said the crowd doesn't dictate the way you play, your energy or anything," Juiston said. "To have a crowd there, that's nice, but we're playing for the people that are on our bench, people that are on the floor. If a crowd comes, that's nice, we'll play for them. But if it's a big crowd, we're not going to do anything different that we wouldn't do if they weren't there."
Despite what the players say publicly, the low energy inside the arena has to make it a little more difficult to defend their home court. UNLV is 10-4 at the Thomas & Mack Center this season, and after the Fresno State contest on Wednesday, the only home date remaining is a Feb. 28 showdown with in-state rival UNR.
How much would a bigger, more engaged crowd help UNLV in those two games? It's impossible to quantify, and Menzies thinks his team can stand on its own. But a little extra energy inside the arena couldn't hurt.
"I think it does [help]," Menzies said. "Everyone has an ego, right? When you have people behind you cheering you on, it's motivational. It's inspirational to have groups of people, fans and family that are there cheering you on. It should give you an extra little boost, you would think. I think the more we grow it and the more energy we can create inside Thomas & Mack would be good for us."