LAST SEASON: 33-5; lost to Auburn in NCAA round of 16.
GOODBYE TO: Anthony Jones. PCAA Co-Player of the Year.
SUPPORTING CAST: Guards Freddie Banks (17.6 ppg) and Mark Wade.
INTRODUCING: Juco transfer Gerald (Furniture) Paddio (24.8 ppg).
SEE YOU IN THE SUPERDOME IF: The Rebs find another frontcourt star to help the Hammer nail the boards.
What's with UNLV? The team is concentrating on defense; Jerry Tarkanian has become a health nut; and the star of the team is a former high school football player from Pittsburgh whose nom de guerre is Hammer.
These are the runnin' Rebels, aren't they? That happy-go-lucky crew long known for its flash-and-fun style that mirrors Las Vegas itself? The court at the Thomas and Mack Center is supposed to have more players rolling up big numbers than Caesars. But last season the Rebels broke the bank—scored 100 points or more—only three times. It hasn't been all that long since UNLV averaged 110.
Well, now they're the Rampart Rebels. Last season they led the PCAA in steals and held opponents to 44.6% shooting. " Jim Valvano has told us many times that we play better defense than anyone in the ACC," Tarkanian says proudly. Tark may be losing his bite: After dropping 16 pounds prior to last season, he put his team on a chicken and pasta diet.
The yuppie diet certainly didn't take away any of Armon (Hammer) Gilliam's ferocity. "He's the most physical player we've had since I've been here," Tarkanian says. Back in suburban Pittsburgh, Gilliam's bedroom was a tribute to manly vigor. Posters celebrating the Steel Curtain, Hugh Green and Sugar Ray Leonard decorated the walls. There was but one basketball player enshrined—Pittsburgh native Maurice Lucas, not exactly a softy himself. Now Gilliam emulates Lucas: He's a 6'9" power forward who plays hard defense, sweeps the boards and mixes it up in the paint. "Through most of last season," Tarkanian says, "he was as good a power forward as there was in the country. He's fearless inside."
Gilliam was highly recruited as a football tight end and defensive lineman. He turned to basketball in 11th grade because he was tired of spending his winters wrestling. He was, by his own admission, "the worst player on the jayvees." But two years later, having declined football scholarships from Penn State, West Virginia and Pitt, he went to Independence ( Kans.) J.C. to play hoops. He was spotted at the national juco tournament by a UNLV assistant coach.