Set aside all the chaos at UNLV—the fact that the Runnin' Rebels are on NCAA probation and the sniping that has been going on, with ever-increasing nastiness, between the basketball program and the university administration for the last year—and one truth remains evident. The Rebels are still an awfully good team.
They're not just a good Big West team, as was widely thought would be the case when UNLV lost all five of its starters from last season's 34-1 squad. The Rebels are much better than that, as they proved by shocking No. 9 LSU 76-55 in their home opener last Saturday.
"This game doesn't need a lot of analysis," said LSU coach Dale Brown. "They whipped us in every category. It's unfortunate they've got those NCAA problems." Those problems include a ban on postseason play and live television appearances for the Rebels.
UNLV has obviously come a long way from the early-season practice at which coach Jerry Tarkanian looked around the gym, saw more walk-ons than recruited players and said, "I don't even know some of these guys' names."
Because of the probation, most of the country won't have a chance to get to know these Rebels very well either. UNLV has a lot of new faces, several of them junior college transfers, including J.R. Rider, a sinewy 6'5" junior. Rider scored 17 of his 21 points in the second half on Saturday to help the Rebels pull away from LSU. "He'll be one of the best in the country by next year," says Tarkanian, who has announced that he will resign after this season.
The Rebels haven't changed completely; some of the old faces are back but in more prominent roles. Elmore Spencer, the 7-foot center, and 6'10" power forward Melvin Love don't give the Rebels as much quickness inside as George Ackles and Larry Johnson did a year ago, but together they frustrated Shaquille O'Neal, the Tigers' 7'1" All-America center. O'Neal had 26 points and seven rebounds, but Spencer had 20 points and 12 boards, and Love had 13 and nine.
Then there's forward Evric Gray, who played the kind of all-around game for which Stacey Augmon was known. Gray had 10 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and three steals against LSU.
The victory had to shock even Tarkanian. "We're not a Top 20 team," he said before the season, "but we can play with anyone on our schedule."
There's no longer any question about that. LSU is probably the best team UNLV will play this season. Missouri is the Rebels' only other notable nonconference opponent. "This was their NCAA tournament, their Final Four," O'Neal said after the game.
The Rebels have vowed to approach every game that way. After spending so much time in the spotlight, they seem to be adapting nicely to the shadows.
A Monumental Beginning
Elvis had Graceland, Anfernee has The-Pyramid.
O.K., so it's a bit of a stretch to compare Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway, Memphis State's 6'7" sophomore point guard, with that other hero from Memphis, but the three notable debuts that occurred last Friday night made it easy to get carried away. Not only did Hardaway, a do-everything player in the style of Magic Johnson, play his first college game after sitting out his freshman year as a Prop 48 case (SI, Aug. 12), but he also did it in the Tigers' brand-new arena, The Pyramid, and in the inaugural game of the six-team Great Midwest Conference.
Tiger fans, who filled the 20,000-seat arena, got carried away as well. They prematurely dubbed the new arena the Tomb of Doom, only to see Memphis State become its first victim. The nickname didn't intimidate DePaul, which marred the occasion with a 92-89 overtime win.
For Memphis State, Hardaway's performance was much like the game: It wasn't perfect, but it was exciting. He earned a good news/bad news triple double with 18 points, 15 rebounds and 13 turnovers, but don't be surprised if some of the passes that he threw out of bounds against DePaul turn into layups when Hardaway and his teammates grow more accustomed to each other.
There was a time when Hardaway, who also had six assists, four blocked shots and four steals in the game, must have wondered if his college career would ever begin. After sitting out last season, he was shot in his right foot while being robbed on the street in front of his cousin's house in Memphis last April. Now he's glad his college debut is finally out of the way. "I went into shell shock in the first half," he said in reference to his having made only one of eight shots and having scored just three points before the intermission. "I tried to go to the game, instead of letting the game come to me. That's why I was missing layups. I just settled down in the second half."
He settled down enough to calmly sink a three-pointer with seven seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime. Even in defeat, Hardaway gave every indication that he will be the spectacular player he was advertised to be when he attended Treadwell High in Memphis.
"I know he's going to be a great player, but it may not be tonight or tomorrow night," said Tiger coach Larry Finch. "It's just a different world when you're coming out in front of 20,000 screaming people instead of 500."
Down but Not Out
It will take great determination for Texas forward Vicki Hall, the leading scorer for the Longhorn women's team last season, to come back from the torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee, which she suffered in Texas's season opener against Southwest Missouri State on Nov. 23. Bet on her to do it, though. No one can question Hall's determination.
Chuck Person and Reggie Miller of the Indiana Pacers have firsthand knowledge of her grit. After she was cut from the U.S. Pan Am Games team last spring, Hall spent the summer working out with Person and Miller. "She's a fighter," says Person. "She'd come out every day. We'd knock her down, and she'd get right back up. If the doctors tell her to do therapy for one hour a day, she'll do three."
The Longhorns, who were No. 12 in the AP preseason rankings, already miss Hall, a preseason All-America who averaged 17.5 points last year. Last week Texas lost 70-62 to unranked George Washington in its first game without her.
Hall, a 6'1" senior, hasn't decided whether she will take a redshirt year and rejoin the Longhorns next season. However, she is certain she would like to make the U.S. Olympic team for the Barcelona Games, which begin in July. Doctors expect she will need six to nine months of rehabilitation, and the Games are eight months away. But Hall hasn't given up.
"I'm going to be as intense with rehab as I am on the court," she says. "I want to come back as quickly as possible, and if that means being in rehab 24 hours a day, seven days a week, I'll do it."
Catholic University of Washington, D.C., shot 62 three-pointers, a Division III record, and made 27 of them, a record for all NCAA divisions, in a 117-71 victory over St. Joseph's of New York in Brooklyn. Catholic is coached by Bob Valvano, brother of you-know-who....
Sophomore guard Marty Clark of Duke could be the biggest beneficiary of Bill McCaffrey's having transferred to Vanderbilt. Clark had 17 points and four assists in 22 minutes in the Blue Devils' 103-75 win over East Carolina....
New coach John MacLeod apparently won't provide a quick fix for Notre Dame. Only 8,674 fans showed up for the Irish home opener, a 67-60 loss to Butler.
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Alabama's Latrell Sprewell, a 6'4" senior forward, averaged 28 points while making 61% of his shots from the field as the Crimson Tide defeated Tennessee Tech 105-85 and Virginia 80-69.
Val Whiting, Stanford's 6'3" junior center, averaged 16.5 points, 14 rebounds and three assists as the Cardinal beat UNLV 96-85 and George Washington 74-71 in the UNLV Desert Classic.
Steve Swenson, a 6'3" senior guard, scored 51 points and made 18 of 24 shots, including six of 10 three-pointers, as Division III Monmouth (Ill.) knocked off Iowa Wesleyan 74-71 and Mount St. Clare 87-81.