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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."