NCAA Tournament:

For the opportunity to influence young players, Augmon returned to UNLV

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV assistant coach Stacy Augmon guards Justin Hawkins during practice before their second round NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game Wednesday, March 14, 2012 at The Pit in Albuquerque. The Runnin’ Rebels will take on Pac 12 champions Colorado on Thursday.

Stacey Augmon

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The feeling is inescapable this time of year. It hangs in the air of gyms across the country, just waiting for someone to walk into its embrace.

The feeling is the reason Stacey Augmon came home.

“I have the jitters like I want to get out there and play,” Augmon said. “I’m so excited for these kids.”

Augmon is nearing the end of his first season as a collegiate coach, an altogether successful run as one of three assistants under the direction of former UNLV teammate Dave Rice. The Rebels (26-8) are preparing for the NCAA Tournament as a No. 6 seed, their best seed since 1990-91, when Augmon, Larry Johnson and Greg Anthony rolled through a perfect regular season and picked up a No. 1 seed before getting upset by Duke in the Final Four.

After that game, Augmon went on to play in the NBA for 15 years with five teams, averaging eight points per game. He nearly kept playing with the Denver Nuggets in 2007 but instead was hired as an assistant coach, a position he still held when Rice came calling last offseason.

Come back to Las Vegas? Work with kids whose eyes get big when you walk in the room? Compete for national championships?

The opportunity was too good to pass up. And tonight’s game at 7 on truTV against 11th-seeded Colorado is the first step toward the positive end of a season Augmon believes is just the beginning.

“It’s been a special year, but I’m taking it as a long journey,” Augmon said. “I’m going to be here awhile with Coach Dave and just take this program to the next level.”

A big part of that plan is working on development, particularly with younger guys, every day.

After practice Monday, Augmon and assistant coach Justin Hutson spent nearly a half-hour working with freshman forward Khem Birch, who will become eligible in December of next season after sitting out due to transfer rules. That scene has played out several times this year, often with Augmon using a padded shield to knock Birch around while he takes entry passes and tries to finish at the rim.

That’s not something you see much in NBA practice gyms.

“I think he likes feeling the difference he can make with college guys, both on and off the court,” Rice said.

What Augmon lost in skill level, he gained in attentiveness.

“They do as I ask and they’re willing to learn,” Augmon said. “Their eyes are open; their ears are open.”

Of course, he also lost charter trips, a luxury Augmon said “spoiled” him. That was definitely on his mind during long bus rides through Wyoming and Idaho.

If that’s the cost, though, he’ll gladly pay it. Once players become multimillionaires, it can be increasingly difficult to instruct them on a jump stop without getting tuned out.

And being able to point to your jersey in the rafters or talk about playing with a Hall of Famer like Dominique Wilkins gives the Rebels even more reason to pay attention.

“He’s got a great relationship with the guys, and he brings instant credibility because of what he has achieved on the court,” Rice said. “Yet, he’s so humble, so the guys know how much he cares about them and their development.”

In his 1993-94 season with the Atlanta Hawks, Augmon was briefly teammates with Danny Manning, another collegiate star with a national title and a 15-year NBA career. Now Manning is in his fifth season as an assistant at Kansas, his alma mater.

During that time, Manning has helped KU get five post players drafted and win the 2008 national championship. It’s tough to find a better blueprint for what Augmon would like to do with his second act.

Augmon knows the feeling better than most players ever will. He’s reached the peak and been able to look back at the path that led him there.

Now his job is to share it.

“Leave it all on the court,” Augmon said, “because it’s one game, it’s March Madness and anything can happen.”

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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