NORTHRIDGE — The school's nickname is Rebels.
The basketball team's nickname is Runnin' Rebels.
Staggerin' might be more appropriate.
Nevada Las Vegas takes a 3-5 record into tonight's game against Cal State Northridge at the Northridge Gym. Only three years ago, UNLV was making its second consecutive appearance in the NCAA Final Four.
The Runnin' Rebels were bumped from the fast lane shortly after Jerry Tarkanian left to coach the NBA's San Antonio Spurs.
Guided by former Villanova Coach Rollie Massimino for two seasons, UNLV slipped from the ranks of college basketball's elite, and in October, after weeks of turmoil and threatened lawsuits, the former Villanova coach was fired.
Enter Tim Grgurich, formerly Tarkanian's top assistant.
Grgurich, Rebel fans hoped, would return the basketball team to heights known previously.
Apparently, that's an exhausting process.
Grgurich, who left an assistant's post with the Seattle Supersonics to return to UNLV, was hospitalized Jan. 6 with what school officials say are "symptoms of physical exhaustion."
Howie Landa, who guided the Runnin' Rebels to an 84-80 victory over UC Irvine the night after Grgurich fell ill, will be in charge again tonight. In charge of what, he's not quite sure.
"There's talent there," he said of the team before a Wednesday practice at Northridge, "but we never know what that talent is going to do."
UNLV has won three of its last four, but still is off to its worst start since 1972-73, the season before Tarkanian came to town.
And just when the Massimino fallout was beginning to settle, Grgurich was forced away.
"It's been tough," Landa said. "The biggest thing was losing a coach they waited to get and were excited to get. They expected to have him out of the hospital for this game."
The Runnin' Rebels play a conference game at No. 24 New Mexico State on Monday, but Landa said he doubts the team will be looking past Northridge (3-9).
"I don't think they'll be looking ahead because they're down to start," Landa said. "They're mentally down already."
The same can't be said for Northridge, even though the Matadors have lost six of their last seven.
"Just the name UNLV and the Runnin' Rebels makes this an exciting game for us," Northridge guard Ryan Martin said. "When you think of UNLV you think of big-time basketball.
"It's great to play them, especially in our gym."
Forward Mike Dorsey said the Matadors' dates against UCLA and UNLV played prominently in his decision to transfer to Northridge from Los Angeles City College. His enthusiasm hasn't waned, even if the Runnin' Rebels' standing among top teams has.
"They're still UNLV and they still have a great team," said Dorsey, who leads Northridge with a 11.2 scoring average. "Things just haven't gone their way this year."
The same might be said of Northridge, which is 3-1 at home but winless in eight other games. Shane O'Doherty, a 6-foot-11 senior, is expected to replace Peter Micelli at center.
Micelli missed all seven of his field-goal attempts, committed four fouls and scored only two points in Northridge's 84-69 loss at Loyola Marymount on Monday. He is averaging 10.2 points a game but has scored in double figures in only three of the last nine games.