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.
"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."