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UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian is a noted worrywart, so imagine his reaction at a preseason press conference when he heard the Runnin' Rebels' three returning starters, center Richie Adams and forwards Ed Catchings and Frank (Spoon) James take turns predicting an NCAA title for Vegas. It only got worse when Dennis Farrell, the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference's information director, announced the results of the league's preseason coaches' poll. "I was sent here by the other nine coaches to congratulate you, Jerry, on winning the 1985 PCAA championship," said Farrell.
"That really ticked me off," Tark groused the next day. "We lost four of our top nine players, had the worst recruiting year in the country, and everybody's running around saying we're loaded."
Sorry, Jerry, but there's no doubt the Rebels are deeper, quicker and more talented than they were last season, when they went 29-6 and lost to Georgetown 62-48 in the NCAA West Regional semifinals. Five players who started at least one game are back, and they've been joined by five potential monsters who'll shed their redshirts.
Gone are four seniors, including point guard Danny Tarkanian, the coach's son and UNLV's alltime leader in assists and steals, but Tark Sr. acknowledges that this year's Rebels have more ability. Says Danny, now helping out his dad but soon to take a six-week playing tour of Europe, "There are 11 players on this team who can play and nine or 10 who could legitimately start."
The hottest competition is for Danny's vacated spot at the point, where Freddie (Skeleton) Banks, an excellent outside shooter but a so-so defender, is battling fellow sophomore Gary Graham, whose defensive skills are so sharp, says assistant coach Mark Warkentien, "you run a defensive clinic with him." Whoever wins the job will team in the backcourt with junior Anthony Jones, who'll try to shed the bad-actor reputation some people assumed was warranted merely because he transferred from Georgetown. He so wants to be a good actor that he's studying theater arts. He will also get a chance to float his silky jump shots over his former Hoya teammates when UNLV meets Georgetown on Dec. 8.
The Rebel front line of Adams, Catchings and James makes up in speed what it lacks in bulk. A wisp at 6'8" and 215 pounds, Adams looks more like an oversize Kenyan distance runner than a defensive intimidator. He's the team's fastest player and, according to Fresno State coach Boyd Grant, he has "a little bit of Bill Russell in him." Adams led the Rebels 180 in scoring (12.7 points per game), rebounding (6.7) and blocked shots (1.6) last season and reformed himself from a malcontent who had bolted school three times during 1982-83—"I was selfish, spoiled and rotten," he says—into the 1984 PCAA Player of the Year and the MVP of the conference tournament. "He has the same type of talent as [the L.A. Lakers'] James Worthy," says Tarkanian, "but he can't afford to get hurt, and he has to keep his head on straight."
Catchings, who averaged 12.3 points per game on 60.5% shooting, will play at a wing. He has never met his cousin, Harvey, a 10-year NBA veteran, but, says Ed, "I saw him play. He couldn't make a layup." The ebullient James, who refuses to divulge the origin of his nickname, is a streak shooter and the Rebels' best passer.
When the team needs muscle underneath, it can go to 6'10" senior John Flowers, who's playing his way into shape after an off-season back injury, and 6'8" Armon Gilliam, a former high school wrestling champ. One man to watch is 6'9" sophomore Richard Robinson, who saw limited action in five games last season before contracting hepatitis and sitting out the rest of the schedule as a redshirt. Robinson is a shot-blocker and intimidator who, says Tarkanian, "could be the finest big man we've ever had here." Says James, "Ricky Rob is a monster. I told him that he could lead us to the promised land."
But then, let's not speculate wildly. We wouldn't want to worry Tark.