Before anyone dismisses America's favorite "Yeah, but..." team—the desperados of the desert, the No. 1-at-the-whipping-post if no longer No. 1-in-the-polls Runnin' Rebels of Nevada-Las Vegas—let it be known that:
1) The power forward is a quiet, organ-playing son of a Baptist minister back in Library, Pa.
2) The sixth man and defensive stopper is a studious, social-consciousness buff who already has enough credits to graduate and thought it would be a good idea for the team to wear warmup shirts saying STOP DRUGS.
3) The senior co-captain and shooting guard is a Webster-faced Las Vegas local whose mom picks him up after road trips the way other moms meet their sons at real airports without slot machines in real college towns.
January 26, 1987
Before last weekend The Runnin' Rebels were 15-0. Yeah, but...they lost to Oklahoma Saturday, 89-88. And anyway, look at the puffballs they've played. Well, UNLV has beaten Arizona, Oklahoma (yep, 90-81 in the preseason NIT), Temple, Western Kentucky, Memphis State, Louisiana Tech and Navy. Those teams are a combined 88-27. After the Rebs' 104-79 demolition of his Middies, David Robinson said the Rebels "made us look stupid." Vegas making Midshipmen look stupid?
Yeah, but...they have no name players.
Armon Gilliam, the son of a preacher man, combines possibly the hardest muscles with the softest touch in all the land. Point guard Mark Wade leads the nation in assists (11.3 per game). Freddie (Webster) Banks and Gerald Paddio shoot the lights out. Names? Jarvis Squire Basnight, the Rebs' center who answers to the nickname B-Ster, talks the lights out. Say, B-Ster, are those family names?
"Which one? Basnight?"
Yeah, but...Wade can't shoot a lick, and Paddio can't pass, dribble or defend.
None of it seems to matter. Giving up a man or even a man-and-a-half on defense to many teams, the Rebs were, through last weekend, leading the country in scoring with 96.1 points a game and were second in three-pointers, averaging eight per game.
Yeah, but...look at their weak, no-test, no-chance conference, the PCAA.
So who's No. 1 now? Iowa? Iowa beat UC-Irvine 105-103. North Carolina? North Carolina lost to UCLA by five, and UCLA beat Cal State-Fullerton by one. Guess which league Irvine and Fullerton belong to? And guess who beat Irvine by 42 points? And on that occasion Anteater coach Bill Mulligan thanked Tarkanian for not running the margin up to 100.
Yeah, but...Vegas just went into Oklahoma for a rematch and lost.
Well, not really. The Sooners, now 12-3, ended up one point ahead of the Rebs in as gloriously chaotic a meeting of pumped-up, splendid athletes as one might find outside the NBA. But give Vegas the three-pointer that most of the roughly 9,600 fans in Lloyd Noble Center saw Gary (STOP DRUGS) Graham drain at the end of the first half—and which TV replays unequivocally confirmed—instead of the two points he was allowed, and the two teams might still be out there.
Not only that, but if you give the Rebels another point for the shot that Graham hit from smack in front of the Vegas bench (which again was ruled a deuce but may have been a trey) in the midst of a marvelous stretch of 15 second-half lead changes, the invaders would finish a point ahead of Oklahoma, still unbeaten and still No. 1.
"Nobody gets cheated here," said Sooner coach Billy Tubbs, explaining how the current Sooner seniors have forged a 58-1 home record. (The lone loss, which came against Kansas last season, was avenged Thursday, 76-74). "We like to think we could beat the Celtics on this floor."
And maybe they could if Larry Bird missed a point-blank 12-footer with the nearest Sooner somewhere in Tulsa. Or if Kevin McHale attempted an off-balance, goofy gorilla jam instead of just tipping in the winning rebound. For that is exactly what Vegas's Gilliam and Basnight did in the final five seconds after Oklahoma's Darryl (Choo) Kennedy had spun in the lane for the decisive go-ahead bucket with 12 seconds left.
As the Rebels roared down the court—and along the precipice of Poll Mountain—Tarkanian eschewed a timeout because his men had the floor spread exactly the way he wanted. Then they put the ball in the hands of the man he wanted: Gilliam, who already had 23 points and 13 rebounds. Harmin' Armon was beside the lower left quadrant of the foul circle, nobody within reaching distance. "But I blew it," said the 6'9" enforcer. "Nothing to do with concentration. That's my shot, and I just blew it." But Basnight, on a solo flight with the rebound, blew his as well. The Squire—"Misjudging myself," he said—had a two-foot putt for the victory. Instead, he pulled out his driver and swung for a 300-yarder—Quaaaaang! And the only No. 1 Vegas left Norman with was pinned to its won-lost record.
"You like our defense at the end?" said Tubbs. "That's our scatter. Go scatter and find somebody." The Sooner defenders haven't found anybody yet. Oklahoma was just lucky its earlier pressure defense, mirroring that of the visiting Vegans—"Shoot, this is nothin' but an intrasquad game." Tubbs had said—was enough to pressure Banks and Paddio into missing 18 three-point shots between them. And the Sooners were doubly fortunate that David Johnson, their 6'7" senior load (checking in somewhere between 240 and 265 pounds), had decided to cut out eating between snacks.
Though Oklahoma's Harvey Grant matched Gilliam's numbers (23 points, 16 rebounds) and Kennedy was there in the clutch, it wasn't so much Choo as too much Goo (the aforementioned fat-attacked Johnson) who was the difference in the Sooners' crucial 50-36 rebounding edge. Overweight and undermotivated, Johnson hadn't even played in Oklahoma's November loss at Vegas. Later, Tubbs suspended him for several games for unspecified rules violations before Johnson apologized to the team and also hitched a ride on the diet train. "David promised me he'd cut down to four meals a day," said Tubbs.
In national TV contests Johnson tends to hitch his considerable caboose to a star (he got 31 points against Duke last season), and on Saturday he kept pounding away for 22 points and 13 rebounds.
"Our guys really battled," said a disconsolate Tarkanian. "We're just tired. And I worry about how tough we are."
That's tough, as in strong. Spiritually, this is by far the toughest team Tarkanian has ever had. Having celebrated his silver anniversary in coaching last season, Tark knows this is the crew that may finally get him the attention he deserves, not merely as a survivor and winner but as one of the game's fine strategists and teachers.
This season marks another anniversary for the Yoda figure whose shoulders have always seemed to droop even lower than those familiar woe-is-me Tarkanian eye sacs. It has been 10 years since Jerry's kids made their one and only Final Four appearance. Is that a gleam in Tarkanian's miserable-looking orbs after all?
"With all our seniors, I knew we'd be good," Tark says. "But I don't remember ever having a team work so hard and then play so hard besides." Then, with a slight tip of the head in the direction of Mission, Kansas, he adds, "And the best part is we're doing it with virtual nobodys, guys who weren't All-High School or at the top of the recruiting lists. The NCAA keeps watch on where those hotshots end up. When they see we don't get any, they can't figure how we win so much, and it just ticks them off. I love it. That's the most fun of all."
Of the current Rebs, only Banks and L.A. schoolboy legend Eldridge Hudson—now a shadow of the once-esteemed El Hud because of crippled knees—were thought to be certain contributors. Gilliam was a wrestler who visited Clemson looking for a football scholarship. Graham was a mere reserve on that famous (Reggie Williams, Muggsy Bogues, et al.) Dunbar High team in Baltimore. Wade was an after-thought, a nonscoring transfer from, of all places, Oklahoma. David Willard, who backs up Basnight, was a never-thought. Nobody even offered him a scholarship out of high school.
Tarkanian runs a loose ship off court. That, plus the school's location, accounts for much of the team's chronic bad rep. "We can't help it if the city gets so much negative reaction," says Graham. "It's a good city; beautiful people, lots of churches."
"I tell all the guys right off," says Banks, the local focal. "Stay away from the bright lights. Don't gamble. Everybody I ever knew turned up losers in this town."
Except for those undergraduate followers of Tark the Shark.
How good is UNLV? "Hey, any team that comes in here and plays us this close is a Final Four team," says Tubbs. "Number 1? I think we should be. Or leave Vegas there. I may even send Tark an IOU for one point. 'Course, I get to give it to him when I want to."
Yeah, but.... "Hey, Billy," one can almost hear Tarkanian calling to Tubbs in their NCAA tournament rubber match. "What have you got in the bag, my point?"