Before The NCAA Slaps Jerry Tarkanian and UNLV with another 379 charges—including embezzlement, fraud, invading Kuwait, prolonging the S&L crisis, squeezing the toothpaste from the wrong end and being responsible for Vanilla Ice—someone should point out the serious violation being committed against the Runnin' Rebels: too many comparisons.
As the 1991 NCAA tournament begins, the most beguiling question is not whether UNLV can be beaten, but whether the Rebels could ever have been beaten. How about the 1975-76 Hoosiers, led by All-Americas Scott May and Quinn Buckner, the last team to rage through the season and tournament undefeated? Or the 1960 national champions from Ohio State, starring Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek? Or the 1982 champs, North Carolina, with the dynamic trio of Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins? Could any of those teams have stayed on the court with the current Rebels?
Regarding the theory that UNLV doesn't have a dominant center: How would Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have fared against Tarkanian's bunch when he was Lew Alcindor and helping UCLA win three NCAA titles in a row, in 1967, '68 and '69? How would Bill Walton's Bruins have handled UNLV back when he had healthy knees and was leading UCLA to two titles, in '72 and 73? What about ancient history, Bill Russell's University of San Francisco teams, national champions in '55 and '56? Or how about Patrick Ewing and the horde of Georgetown Hoyas, who won the NCAA title in '84 and were runners-up in '82 and '85? Could they have gone snarl-to-snarl with Las Vegas's so far untouchable (30-0) Desert Swarm?
It's an intriguing subject, particularly because no matter which team, if any, you choose to beat the Rebels, you'll never be wrong—or right. The matchups can't happen. So we're left, in March 1991, to reach for the history books and ponder the dregs of what was one long ho-hum season. Or was it? Each of the season's other Top 10 teams is anchored by exciting, talented players who will probably become stars in the NBA. But collectively, just call these teams the Other Nine, a terrific group that in any normal season would have created an exciting rush toward the Final Four in Indianapolis. This year, alas, they seem so far down, it must seem like up to them. Blame it on the reign. Simply, UNLV's defending champions have risen to such a different, higher plateau that they have made every other current team look mediocre.
March 18, 1991
"It's ridiculous," says Xavier coach Pete Gillen. "Nobody will come within 10 points of them in the NCAAs."
Easy for Gillen to say—seeded 14th in the Midwest region, his team won't have to play the Rebels unless both teams reach the Final Four. Still, he may be right. In forwards Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon and point guard Greg Anthony, all potential lottery picks, UNLV has the nation's best seniors at their respective positions. The Rebels' shot-blocking pivotman, George Ackles, and their shooting guard, deadeye junior Anderson Hunt, are near locks as first-round draft choices, and the team's backup center, junior Elmore Spencer, might become a lottery pick someday. Moreover, Augmon, Anthony and Ackles are all fifth-year players, making UNLV older than most NBA expansion teams.
What is most curious is that even coaches who may have a chance against UNLV don't think they do.
"If somebody beats them, it's an accident," says Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, whose team is the No. 2 seed in the East. "I know we can't."
Can Arizona, with its Tucson Skyline, 6'11" Brian Williams and 6'11" Sean Rooks and 7-foot reserve Ed Stokes? Can Arkansas, already once scorched by the Rebels, if it resists the urge to get in another Sprint-'N'-Dunk-'R'-Us machothon? Can Duke, if point guard Bobby (Bart Man) Hurley doesn't have another cow, man? What about dark horse East Tennessee State?
"You can't call off the tournament, but they'd be better off keeping the games off TV—it will be carnage," says Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins, whose team held a 53-46 halftime lead over UNLV in the 1990 NCAA semis at Denver. But the Rambling Wreck wrecked after intermission, losing 90-81. The effect on the Rebels of all the NCAA investigations? "They turn controversy into a cause. It unifies them. They were beatable last year. I don't think that's the case now."
So, how to beat UNLV?
It's widely agreed that to slow the champions' attack, an opponent must, among other things, minimize the Rebels' transition baskets, keep them away from the offensive glass and force UNLV into a slow, methodical halfcourt offense. All the while, the opponent must continually switch defensive alignments, just to keep the Rebels thinking. Then again, the champs have become much more patient in their old age. They don't take bad shots (54.3 field goal percentage) or commit turnovers (14.5 a game). They're also fiendishly unselfish (26.2 assists a game), and their interior passing might be the best in college basketball.
Anthony used to allow his ego to overcome common sense and tried to do more than he should on offense; his improvement is probably the most critical factor in the Rebels' advancement to another level. "Their biggest vulnerability is if Greg gets in foul trouble," says Long Beach State coach Seth Greenberg, whose team suffered three losses to UNLV by margins totaling a mere 118 points. "They can't replace him. Johnson may be the best player in the country, but Anthony is their key."
O.K., that's the offense. Defensive weaknesses? Forget it. Privately, Tarkanian acknowledges that nobody has ever played better defense than the Rebels have over the past two seasons.
Make no mistake, UNLV wins with defense, where it absolutely terrifies opponents. Probably no team has ever distorted games with such overwhelming halfcourt defense. It is this D that has carried the Rebels to a level previously reserved for the UCLA teams of Alcindor and Walton, and the '76 Indiana team.
Blocks, interceptions and deflections. UNLV has absolutely devastated teams in the turnover department, forcing an average of 20 a game. That is why, offensively, an opponent must 1) have guards who not only hold up under the pressure but also attack it; 2) open up the driving lanes with crisp passes to the weak side; and 3) spread the offense, running it behind the defense, with back-cuts, as much as possible. What current team could accomplish all of this in the 1991 tournament? Yes, Toto, it's Kansas, the No. 3 seed in the Southeast, but not a possible UNLV foe until the championship game. A moment to remember: the Jayhawks' picks and slants, banana loops and constant motion embarrassing this same, albeit younger, UNLV team in the '89-90 Dodge NIT, 91-77.
The key factor is the opponent's style. Temple is 0-4 against UNLV in their four meetings since the 1986-87 season, but the combined deficit for the four games is only 11 points. Why? Coach John Chaney's Owls established the pass before the shot. "Nobody ever gets into their offense against Vegas because they attempt to shoot first. That's playing into their hands," says Chaney. "While you have possession, you have to control."
The notion of control brings up the Villanova-Georgetown NCAA final of 1985, when the underdog Wildcats spun a perfect game against the formidable defending champions. That performance by Villanova is the desert oasis to which coaches will be crawling for sustenance as they approach UNLV. Then again, the Wildcats shot a record 78.6% against Ewing's Hoyas. "I don't think that's possible against UNLV's defense," says Cremins.
But if the circumstances are right.... "Sure you can beat 'em," says Missouri coach Norm Stewart, chuckling. (Why shouldn't he chuckle? Stewart's team is on NCAA probation and thus ineligible for UNLV's postseason party.) "You can do it the old-fashioned way—small gym, your own officials, no clock, hold the ball and shoot once each half."
UC Santa Barbara coach Jerry Pimm, whose Gauchos were the last team to beat UNLV—Pimm should affix a plaque memorializing the occasion, a 78-70 win on Feb. 26, 1990, onto the stern of his houseboat in the Santa Barbara Marina—equates playing the Rebels to a night in a casino. "There are no windows or clocks," Pimm sighs. "You lose sight of time and your money. You lose sight of your calmness and self-possession, and then you become a gambler. Suddenly, you're down 20. Then, you get buried."
Is it possible that every other mighty team in college basketball history would have been put to rest by the 1990-91 Rebels?
•North Carolina, 1981-82. Worthy, Perkins, the infant Jordan over the infant Ewing for the NCAA championship in the Louisiana Superdome. "We won with more defensive strength than UNLV has," says Perkins. "I haven't seen them trap anybody yet. We would win. We would just basically win all over."
Wrong. Wrong. And wrong, basically all over. Worthy against Johnson would be a wonderful matchup inside, but Hunt and Anthony would make mincemeat of the slow Carolina backcourt. Remember, freshman Jordan was only a gleam in Nike's eye and several years away from All-Millenium status.
•Indiana, 1975-76. When the Hoosiers got to the championship game, they had only to beat Michigan for the third time that season. "I feel pretty strongly about our team," says Buckner. "We could probably force [UNLV] into a half-court game. We could run some clock and be very patient. Defend them? [Defensive ace] Bobby Wilkerson would probably be on Anthony because he's got the ball and you want to steer him away from what he wants to do."
Good theory. But athletically, at every position the Runnin' Rebels arc better than the Hoosiers were. In the pivot, Ackles cancels out Indiana's Kent Benson. If Wilkerson guards Anthony, what poor Hoosier would take Johnson? And Augmon has made a career of eating up far better scorers than Indiana's star, May, who says, "with no shot clock, we'd win." Adds Wilkerson: "We'd kill 'em. No, maybe not. But we'd definitely win."
These guys have grown saucy over the years. Put those quotes in the Rebel locker room and UNLV wins in a blowout.
•UCLA, 1971-72, 1972-73. Teams that helped John Wooden win a record 88 games in a row; the last champion to repeat; Walton's sophomore and junior years with Jamaal Wilkes as sidekick. The '71-72 team set the alltime victory-margin record of 30.3 points—a mark UNLV probably won't surpass this season—in an era of no treys and no shot clocks.
"Everyone thinks their own team is the greatest," says Walton. "But it's not premature to call UNLV one of the greatest ever. The things that set them apart are discipline and teamwork...that hustle, that in-your-face defense."
Larry Farmer, the forward who played opposite Wilkes, says UNLV is quicker than his team was, but that the Bruins were bigger. "I would prefer if Coach [John] Wooden put Jamaal on Larry Johnson," Farmer says with a laugh. He adds, "But like everyone else, they'd have trouble with Bill."
Last month, Arkansas center Oliver Miller, who can't run or jump with any proficiency, absolutely had his way with UNLV, with 22 points and 14 rebounds. Oliver Miller! What a healthy Walton would do to the Rebels boggles the mind.
•UCLA, 1967-68. Alcindor's junior year; Lucius Allen and Mike Warren, a.k.a. Officer Bobby Hill of Hill Street Blues, in backcourt. Wooden's favorite team.
About UNLV, the Wizard says: "Let's wait and see. A lot of teams have won one in a row." Ouch. "They'd have a lot of trouble with my two undefeated teams ['71-72, '72-73] and with San Francisco in '56. They don't have anyone to compare with Russell, Alcindor or Walton. Mike Warren was the smartest guard I've ever seen. With Lucius and [forwards] Mike Lynn and Lynn Shackelford...UNLV wouldn't put any fear into that team."
Let it not be forgotten how pure and solid was the Warren-Allen backcourt. Among the backcourts of the legendary teams, they would have the easiest time repelling the Rebels' pressure. And again, how would UNLV stop another dominant center, Alcindor? Oliver Miller?
•San Francisco, 1954-55, '55-56. The foreboding Russell, the fearless defensive guard, K.C. Jones. "I'm prejudiced toward our team because of Russell. He transcends eras," says Dons forward Mike Farmer. "We had a playing arrogance, a cockiness. Personally, I think we could blow [UNLV] away by 50."
Come on. San Francisco averaged only 68.5 points over those two seasons. Certainly Russell's commanding presence on defense would have made the game interesting, but it was truly another era. The Dons would be hard-pressed simply to keep up with the Rebels.
•Nobody ever mentions North Carolina State, 1973-74, in the same breath with the teams listed above, but David Thompson's Era-Busters—the Wolfpack beat UCLA in the '74 NCAA semis, breaking the Bruins' seven-year stranglehold on the NCAA championship—had in 7'4" center Tommy Burleson and 5'5½" play-maker Monte Towe a circus act that was tough, versatile and mission-oriented. The season before, while on NCAA probation and ineligible for the postseason, the Wolfpack was undefeated. Thompson would allow North Carolina State to compete with any team in any era.
•And what about Ewing's last two Georgetown teams, in 1983-84 and '84-85, the pair that first won, then lost the NCAA title games? Wouldn't he and his nasty-tempered teammates give UNLV all they wanted?
•And wouldn't another failed NCAA finalist, the 1982-83 Houston team, do the same? Akeem Olajuwon, Clyde (the Glide) Drexler and Larry Michaeux up front, Benny (Take It To The Rack) Anders off the pine. The Cougars' place in championship lore was rudely ripped from them when N.C. State upset Houston 54-52 on a last-second prayer. If any team of the past decade resembles the 1990-91 Runnin' Rebels in speed, spring, verve and sheer, entertainment-value dunkability, it's Phi Slamma Jamma.
So there they are, the best and brightest teams...ever. Where does UNLV rank? Here's one opinion.
1. UCLA '67-68
2. UCLA '72-73
3. UNLV '90-91
4. North Carolina '81-82
5. N.C. State '73-74
6. Indiana '75-76
7. San Francisco '55-56
And if the Runnin' Rebels get upset by Montana or somebody, you never read this. Either that or Sam Perkins, Bobby Wilkerson and Mike Farmer were right all along.