The best show in Las Vegas these days isn't playing at Caesars Palace or the MGM Grand but at the Las Vegas Convention Center. It's called the University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball team, and it stars high-steppin' talent under the direction of a balding, sad-eyed Armenian guy who looks and sometimes talks like an old burlesque comic. Call him Slapsie Maxie Tarkanian.
Yes, Coach Jerry Tarkanian has his Runnin' Rebels out of the gate faster than any other NCAA Division I team. After last week's two Pacific Coast Athletic Association victories—over Cal State-Long Beach by 95-83 and over Cal State-Fullerton by 76-71 in the Convention Center, a.k.a. Tark's Shark Tank—UNLV was the only unbeaten major-college team in the nation, with 16 straight wins. Unranked in the preseason, the Rebels are now No. 3 in SI's poll. That's Vegas' highest ranking since 1977, when it made the Final Four, losing in the national semis to North Carolina.
Of course, Tarkanian's high-gloss productions are nothing new. The problem has been that, like a tourist's stake at a slot machine, they haven't gone very far. Despite an abundance of talent, the Rebels haven't returned to the NCAA tournament since '77, falling in the second round of the NIT last year to Tulane and in the semifinals to Illinois in 1979-80.
But the NIT is a lounge act in college hoops; the NCAA tournament is the big room.
No wonder Tarkanian, who considers himself a headliner all the way, has enough derogatory one-liners about last season's team to impress Henny Young-man. Take my team...please.
"I didn't like my team last year," says Tark. "I didn't have a banquet for them and we went 20-10. That's not bad, but I never have a banquet when I don't like a team, because you have to say nice things and what's the sense of lying."
The Rebels spent much of last season in disarray, with the regulars in uneasy competition with the reserves. "There were days when I didn't even feel like coming to practice," says Vegas Center Sidney Green, who through last weekend led this year's Rebels in scoring (21.0 points per game) and rebounding (12.0). "People were looking to hurt each other out there because they wanted to be playing." Michael Burns and Greg Goorjian left the team during the season, Burns being dropped for academic deficiencies and Goorjian transferring to Loyola Marymount, where he now plays for his father. Fab freshman Dwayne Polee and juco transfer Richie Adams were unhappy, too. Polee was homesick for Los Angeles and transferred to Pepperdine after the season, while Adams went AWOL once last season and didn't return until late October. He left again and went back to his native New York City. It's anybody's guess whether he'll come back next season.
"The last couple years, last year especially but even the year he went to the Final Four, it didn't seem that Tark had the players as together as they should've been," says Long Beach Assistant Coach Ed Ratleff, an All-America under Tarkanian at Long Beach in the early '70s. "It just seemed like he lost control of the team. When I played for him he always had things together. And it looks to me like his guys are playing more together now, more like they used to."
Green's inconsistency had been a Rebel shortcoming since 1979-80, when he became an instant starter as a freshman after a storied New York schoolboy career. There has been nothing erratic about his play this year, though. "The word was out that the pro scouts didn't think I was tough enough," Green says. "I guess I always thought my talent would get me by. I was wrong. Coach Tark told me at the beginning of this year, 'Sid, it's the NBA or Europe.' And I know which one has always been my dream. I dedicated myself to it."
Green began a serious weight-training program last summer and is still lifting twice a week. His best bench press when he began was a paltry 135 pounds; he's now up to 250. That extra strength convinced Tarkanian to move Green back to the post; he played mostly on the wing last year, with Adams and Michael Johnson splitting the time at center. That doesn't fit Green's pro plans. He's an un-intimidating 6'9" who will probably play forward—in the NBA. But that doesn't bother Green. Inconsistency, not a bad attitude, has always been his burden.
"A lot of people thought Sid was one of the problems here," Tarkanian says, "but that just wasn't so. You show me a kid with loyalty, and I'll show you a kid who can be salvaged. Sid is a loyal kid."
And so is another four-year starter, Wingman Larry Anderson, who, like Green, can at last smile at the chaos that preceded this year of tranquility. "Last year you had five guys out there, all wanting to score. You can't play basketball that way," he says.
Until recently Anderson had been worrying about his touch. A 6'6" 180-pounder who almost always plays on the perimeter, Anderson was shooting only .427 from the floor going into last week's games. But he made nine of 15 shots against Long Beach and 12 of 19 for a career-high 30 points against Fullerton.
Anderson's running mate at wing is junior Jeff Collins, a transfer from the University of Arizona. A 42-inch vertical leaper, Collins is so spectacular in the transition game—which is the kind of ball Vegas plays best—that his heavy-handed shooting isn't that much of a liability. In one second-half sequence against Long Beach, Collins scored nine points in 1:28 to put UNLV ahead 74-69.
During UNLV's first seven games Eric Booker, a transfer from the University of San Francisco who was eligible immediately because that school had dropped its basketball program, filled in for the still-ineligible Collins. But he hasn't complained that Collins stole his job. How could he? All Collins did in his debut against Wagner College on Dec. 28 was shoot 11 of 13 from the floor for 25 points and pile up a school-record seven steals to go with nine assists in a 120-70 rout.
Another example of selflessness is 6'10" junior transfer Paul Brozovich, who played at Pitt under Coach Tim Grgurich, now a UNLV assistant. Brozovich has gotten considerable playing time while his much-heralded freshman roommate, 6'6" Forward Eldridge Hudson, recovers from a hyperextended left knee. Brozovich is a relatively unskilled player from western Pennsylvania who can neither shoot nor jump particularly well. If Brozovich were a beer he'd be a 16-ounce can of Iron City. But he's durable, unselfish, aware of his limitations and willing to do the tough work; he's sometimes called The Bumper for his picks for Green and Anderson.
Another difference between last year and this is the relationship between Point Guard Danny Tarkanian and the rest of the team. He still gets kidded about being the coach's son, but now it's good-natured. "Everyone knows Danny gets no special treatment," Green says. "The coach yells at him more than anybody."
Danny showed his value in the first half of Saturday night's game. He made the right pass every time on the break, leading to six transition baskets. Tarkanian is also looking for his shot more often. Last season he averaged fewer than four field-goal attempts a game. At week's end he was scoring 8.1 points per game, and he'd made seven of his 16 three-point shots.
In his 22 years as a JC and major-college head coach, Tarkanian says he has never enjoyed a club so much. It could still go haywire, of course. The Rebels are essentially a doughnut team, one without a true center. Perhaps Green will return to his old inconsistent ways. Or perhaps opponents will start crowding Green inside, and Anderson, Collins and Tarkanian won't be able to compensate. Or perhaps one or two losses will disturb their delicate chemistry.
But this much is certain: They'll make the big room, and there will be a banquet.