Jamaal Franklin may have summed it up best when he was asked what made San Diego State's rivalry with UNLV so special.
"We're both just two competitive teams," SDSU's junior guard said before the Rebels took down the Aztecs 82-75 at Viejas Arena last month. "We play similar styles, we both know each other, so I think that's what makes it so competitive and a real rivalry. Everybody just wants to win. Now even our student section is into it and so is their student section. So it's The Show's rivalry and it's our rivalry. It's real big."
SDSU and UNLV have developed the Mountain West's biggest rivalry in large part because of the exhilarating games that have gone down to the wire the past several years: there was the D.J. Gay game-winning runner in the Mountain West tournament two years ago; Franklin's off-balance, buzzer-beating layup at Viejas Arena last season, UNLV's lockdown defense down the stretch to seal the win at the Thomas & Mack Center a month after that, and even UNLV's 82-75 win at SDSU last month was closer than the final score indicates.
But while the first-class basketball action is the driving force behind the rivalry, the increased fan participation and competition between the two student sections ("The Show" at SDSU, "The Rebellion" for UNLV) is making the series one of the most entertaining and anticipated matchups on the west coast every time the two teams meet.
"What makes these UNLV games so fun is that they hate us so much," said Matt Bishop, who first got involved with the Aztecs' student section in 2005 as a freshman at SDSU. "While tweeting for The Show, I would get twice as many tweets from UNLV fans than I would from San Diego State fans, and they just love to hate us. That's what makes it more fun and that's what kind of amps up the games, at least from a fan's perspective."
Things really started to heat up last year with the formation of The Rebellion, a re-branding of sorts of UNLV's old student section, "The Rojos."
The Rebels' new student section made its presence felt immediately, crafting a clever banner mocking The Show's road chant at the Thomas & Mack. The strategically-placed prank sign read "THIS IS ARE HOUSE" under the unmistakable logo of the Aztecs' student section, and required a double-take to figure out it was a prank and not just an egregious typo by Aztecs fans.
The Show countered by purchasing a billboard less than a mile from UNLV's campus for last season's Mountain West Tournament that read "Win, Win, Win, Cut Down Nets" with the tagline "Go Aztecs."
Since then there have been countless exchanges by fans on Twitter, photoshopped pictures on the internet, even viral videos dedicated to the rivalry.
The latest of such videos was done by Instant Classic, which is "a multimedia startup company founded in Las Vegas focused on providing entertainment content that is bound to be an #instantclassic," according to the company's Facebook page. The music video is a teaser of a longer song titled, "#Run That" which features former Runnin' Rebel Chace Stanback and a verse centered around the UNLV-SDSU series and pokes fun at The Show's "I Believe" chant, among other things. The full music video is expected to be released in the coming weeks.
"I wanted to put that out there because you know how the fans are, going back and forth," explained Craig Lake, the brainchild and star of the project. "That was pretty funny, because when I did the preview for the song before we maybe had 300 views total, and for the SDSU one, once the SDSU fans got ahold of it I went to a morning workout and when I got out we already had like 800 hits and we'd barely had it online for two hours.
"Obviously that verse is about SDSU and wanting to create a little back in forth, but I respect what Tim Shelton did a lot. I think his video is really cool. He's obviously got a lot more people and money behind him than we did, but what you'll see in our final product is going to be at least competitive and cool and we got one of our former players to do it too so that was cool ... it's more fun than anything, it's a good rivalry for sure."
While there's a genuine level of respect and even friendliness between the players off the court ("There's mutual respect, they want to pound us, we want to pound them, but when the game's over we shake hands, hug and genuinely say, `Good game,'" said SDSU head coach Steve Fisher), it's clear that there's no love lost between the two student sections.
"There's obviously some teams that we dislike more than others, and UNLV is definitely a team we dislike," said Josh Baskin, who is currently one of the biggest organizers of The Show. "Honestly most of us don't respect their student section, and here's my personal opinion on it. I've come up with a metaphor for it: it's pretty much a big brother - little brother relationship, where the little brother is trying to prove to the big brother that they're superior.
"I really don't want to consider them our rivals. They haven't really been relevant in the grand scheme of things. They haven't won a conference tournament since 2008, they haven't won a conference regular season title since 2000. You can talk all you want about the close games and the competitiveness between the student sections, but in the grand scheme of things they really aren't relevant."
Despite his clear disdain for UNLV's student section, Baskin may have a point. Looking at the head-to-head matchups, UNLV has won the last two in a row, while the Aztecs have won nine of the last 12 games. But in terms of conference titles and MW Tournament championships, it hasn't been close, with SDSU and New Mexico having won or at least shared the last six straight.
So why is UNLV-SDSU the biggest rivalry in the conference, and not New Mexico-SDSU?
"Us and UNLV, we pride ourselves on different aspects," Bishop said. "We pride ourselves on our recent history and success, and UNLV prides themselves on championships that were won before any of the current students were born. From where we're coming from we're like, 'Who the hell are you guys? You guys haven't been relevant in years.' And then for where they're coming from they're like, 'Who the hell are you guys? We have national championships and you've never won one.'"
"If you go back to when BYU was in the conference, it was less of a rivalry because SDSU would beat us, we'd beat BYU, and BYU would beat SDSU, so it wasn't quite that one-on-one rivalry," Lake explained. "When (BYU) left it left our two teams out there and now the rest of the conference is picking up again."
Which brings us back to the focus of this story: the battle between the two fan bases.
"New Mexico has the Pit, but they don't really have a strong, organized student section," Baskin said. "A lot of it is centered around the close games from last year and The Show has been the most notable student section in the Mountain West for years, and now all of a sudden this new student section comes out claiming they're the best. That's why everyone thinks it's a rivalry right now."
Through all the Twitter jabs, viral videos and debates on who has the better team and student section, both sides can agree on one thing: the battle between SDSU and UNLV and the respective fan bases is good for the development of the Mountain West into one of the most competitive conferences in the country.
"It's a cool rivalry," Lake said. "The whole reason that main verse (in #Run Rebs) came up was because I was driving with one of my friends and we were talking about SDSU going to the Big East and how good our conference could be if the teams would just stay. If you look at what BYU did leaving the conference, I don't think basketball-wise it was the best decision. Maybe for football, but basketball-wise we have the opportunity to be a great conference. I'm glad they're staying."
"The Show has been around for 11-12 years now; The Rebellion just started; Colorado State just started their official student section over the summer so this is their first year and you've seen how competitive they've been at their house," Baskin added. "It's always better to have the SEC, ACC, Big-10 type of environments, that are loud with funny signs, and it's better for the conference. The Mountain West is at its peak right now and it's never been better. A lot of that comes from all of the environments changing."