Set aside all the chaos at UNLV—the fact that the Runnin' Rebels are on NCAA probation and the sniping that has been going on, with ever-increasing nastiness, between the basketball program and the university administration for the last year—and one truth remains evident. The Rebels are still an awfully good team.
They're not just a good Big West team, as was widely thought would be the case when UNLV lost all five of its starters from last season's 34-1 squad. The Rebels are much better than that, as they proved by shocking No. 9 LSU 76-55 in their home opener last Saturday.
"This game doesn't need a lot of analysis," said LSU coach Dale Brown. "They whipped us in every category. It's unfortunate they've got those NCAA problems." Those problems include a ban on postseason play and live television appearances for the Rebels.
UNLV has obviously come a long way from the early-season practice at which coach Jerry Tarkanian looked around the gym, saw more walk-ons than recruited players and said, "I don't even know some of these guys' names."
Because of the probation, most of the country won't have a chance to get to know these Rebels very well either. UNLV has a lot of new faces, several of them junior college transfers, including J.R. Rider, a sinewy 6'5" junior. Rider scored 17 of his 21 points in the second half on Saturday to help the Rebels pull away from LSU. "He'll be one of the best in the country by next year," says Tarkanian, who has announced that he will resign after this season.
The Rebels haven't changed completely; some of the old faces are back but in more prominent roles. Elmore Spencer, the 7-foot center, and 6'10" power forward Melvin Love don't give the Rebels as much quickness inside as George Ackles and Larry Johnson did a year ago, but together they frustrated Shaquille O'Neal, the Tigers' 7'1" All-America center. O'Neal had 26 points and seven rebounds, but Spencer had 20 points and 12 boards, and Love had 13 and nine.
Then there's forward Evric Gray, who played the kind of all-around game for which Stacey Augmon was known. Gray had 10 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and three steals against LSU.
The victory had to shock even Tarkanian. "We're not a Top 20 team," he said before the season, "but we can play with anyone on our schedule."
There's no longer any question about that. LSU is probably the best team UNLV will play this season. Missouri is the Rebels' only other notable nonconference opponent. "This was their NCAA tournament, their Final Four," O'Neal said after the game.