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In national TV contests Johnson tends to hitch his considerable caboose to a star (he got 31 points against Duke last season), and on Saturday he kept pounding away for 22 points and 13 rebounds.
"Our guys really battled," said a disconsolate Tarkanian. "We're just tired. And I worry about how tough we are."
That's tough, as in strong. Spiritually, this is by far the toughest team Tarkanian has ever had. Having celebrated his silver anniversary in coaching last season, Tark knows this is the crew that may finally get him the attention he deserves, not merely as a survivor and winner but as one of the game's fine strategists and teachers.
This season marks another anniversary for the Yoda figure whose shoulders have always seemed to droop even lower than those familiar woe-is-me Tarkanian eye sacs. It has been 10 years since Jerry's kids made their one and only Final Four appearance. Is that a gleam in Tarkanian's miserable-looking orbs after all?
"With all our seniors, I knew we'd be good," Tark says. "But I don't remember ever having a team work so hard and then play so hard besides." Then, with a slight tip of the head in the direction of Mission, Kansas, he adds, "And the best part is we're doing it with virtual nobodys, guys who weren't All-High School or at the top of the recruiting lists. The NCAA keeps watch on where those hotshots end up. When they see we don't get any, they can't figure how we win so much, and it just ticks them off. I love it. That's the most fun of all."
Of the current Rebs, only Banks and L.A. schoolboy legend Eldridge Hudson—now a shadow of the once-esteemed El Hud because of crippled knees—were thought to be certain contributors. Gilliam was a wrestler who visited Clemson looking for a football scholarship. Graham was a mere reserve on that famous ( Reggie Williams, Muggsy Bogues, et al.) Dunbar High team in Baltimore. Wade was an after-thought, a nonscoring transfer from, of all places, Oklahoma. David Willard, who backs up Basnight, was a never-thought. Nobody even offered him a scholarship out of high school.
Tarkanian runs a loose ship off court. That, plus the school's location, accounts for much of the team's chronic bad rep. "We can't help it if the city gets so much negative reaction," says Graham. "It's a good city; beautiful people, lots of churches."
"I tell all the guys right off," says Banks, the local focal. "Stay away from the bright lights. Don't gamble. Everybody I ever knew turned up losers in this town."
Except for those undergraduate followers of Tark the Shark.
How good is UNLV? "Hey, any team that comes in here and plays us this close is a Final Four team," says Tubbs. "Number 1? I think we should be. Or leave Vegas there. I may even send Tark an IOU for one point. 'Course, I get to give it to him when I want to."