I originally wrote this feature for Athlon Sports College Basketball magazine that is currently on newstands everywhere. Unfortunately the story got bumped at the last minute from the print edition, but the good news is you get to read it here on The Hoops Manifesto. Enjoy!
They say that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, and the city’s basketball team seems to have taken that advice to heart. Since the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels’ heyday of the late 1980s-early 1990s, the team has been pretty much absent from the national scene. In fact, since the team lost in the Final Four in 1991 (after winning the championship the year before), the Rebels have missed more NCAA Tournaments than they’ve made. But, like every poor soul on the Strip expects with the next pull on the slot machine’s arm, the program’s fortunes are starting to change.
Perhaps fitting, considering Las Vegas’s reputation as an outlaw frontier town, its resident basketball team’s history reflects the title of a western cinematic classic: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
The Runnin’ Rebels were actually pretty good right out of the gate. From their inception in 1969, they only had one losing season out of their first four. After that, “good” doesn’t even come close to doing the program justice – from 1973 to 1992 the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels were remarkably great.
No coincidence that this period coincides with the Rebs hiring a new sheriff to run their program – the legendary and notorious Jerry Tarkanian’s. During the towel-biting Tark the Shark’s tenure as the Rebels coach, the program became a national power: four Final Four appearances, a National Championship in 1990, four 30-win seasons. Tarkanian did this by successfully persuading elite talent to come to the desert and stock his teams. During his reign the Rebels truly had the star power that belies the school’s home base: Reggie Theus, Sidney Green, Armen Gilliam, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony, Larry Johnson, Isaiah “J.R.” Rider.
It was the LJ-Plastic Man-Greg Anthony-led teams of 1989-91 that really put UNLV on the map as a national power. They reeled off 45-straight wins, made two Final Four appearances and won a National Title during that two-year stretch. But it wasn’t just the fact that they won games – it was how they did it. With equal parts style and menace, the Rebels really put the “Runnin’” in Runnin’ Rebels, piling up the points on hapless opponents (look no further than their 103-73 national title win over Duke). This team wasn’t hesitant about swaggering around in the black hat, acting as a precursor to Michigan’s Fab Five a few years later.
However, like a mirage in the desert, the days of UNLV being a national basketball power quickly vanished. The real sheriff – the NCAA – had long been on the outlaw Tarkanian’s heels, both at Long Beach State and at Vegas. They finally got their man in the early 1990s – recruiting violations, sports gamblers, hot tubs – it all added up to the Shark’s ousting at UNLV and the program being placed on probation and banned from the 1992 NCAA Tournament. (To keep with the western motif, instead of players meeting with a sports gambler in a hot tub, envision it happened in the saloon).
How could it get uglier than NCAA probation and Tarkanian getting fired? This is how. The next 15 seasons after their 1990 triumph (1991-2006), the school ran through 10 different coaches with only two NCAA Tournament appearances to show for it. Now that’s ugly. National power no more.
Which brings us up to 2004. Not that 2004 to 2006 wasn’t ugly, too – back-to-back 17-win seasons isn’t exactly anything to write (e-mail?) home to Mom about. But, in the big picture, 2004 was when the program stopped wandering aimlessly in the Nevada desert. They finally found their oasis when Lon Kruger was hired to try to right the ship. It took a couple of seasons, but before leaving for Oklahoma in 2011, Kruger had steered the Rebs to four NCAA Tourney appearances in five years, including the Sweet Sixteen in 2007. And, in the process, he made the UNLV campus a place where top recruits would be willing to spend at least a year of their lives.
Current head coach Dave Rice has the Rebels poised to build on Kruger’s success.
“We have really high expectations for our program,” Rice says. “We took over a program that Coach Kruger left in very good shape and are working hard to build on that.
Build on it they did, as Rice’s first season as the Rebels coach saw the team go 26-9, including a dramatic victory over then-#1 North Carolina. The team rose all the way to #11 in the AP poll, the rarest air UNLV has breathed since 1992/93. Alas, the season fizzled out when Rice’s squad got upset by Colorado in their first game of the NCAA Tournament.
That loss, coupled with the departure of seniors and All-Mountain West performers Chase Stanbeck and Oscar Bellfield, would point toward the Rebels taking a step back this upcoming year. Except the very opposite of that is true. AP Honorable Mention big man and double-double machine (14.0 ppg, 10.5 rpg) Mike Moser is back for his junior season, and he’ll be joined by senior Anthony Marshall, who made Second Team All-Mountain West last season.
But most of the excitement surrounding the program revolves around two incoming Canadians who also happen to be McDonald’s All-Americans. 6’9” forward Khem Birch played 10 games last season as a freshman at Pittsburgh before leaving the program and ultimately signing with the Rebels. He’ll be eligible to play second semester. 6’8” forward Anthony Bennett, the consensus sixth-best prospect entering college this fall (according to RSCIHoops.com), was a late-signee and gives the Rebels, along with Birch, the first two McDonald’s All-Americans for the program since Larry Johnson and Elmore Spencer over two decades ago.
The two Canadians, along with UConn transfer Roscoe Smith, and top 150 recruits Katin Reinhardt (shooting guard), Savon Goodman (power forward) and Demetris Morant (center) give the Rebels one of the best incoming classes in the whole nation. This is just another indication that UNLV is primed to be part of the national conversation once again.
“We are very fortunate that we have a strong tradition at UNLV and we are able to utilize that in the recruiting process,” Rice admits. “Good recruiting is the foundation of any successful program. We are able to recruit to a quality university with a strong tradition and that appeals to top-notch players. Certainly, our style of play is a big plus in recruiting.”
No one is better schooled in that strong tradition than Rice and assistant coach Stacey Augmon, who both sport championship rings from that fabled 1990 squad. But does a championship won well before any of today’s players were even a glimmer in their fathers’ eyes hold any weight in the recruiting battle?
“1990 was a tremendous year for UNLV basketball winning the national championship, but it is a program that was good for many years before that as well as after that time,” Rice states. “In addition to the national championship, UNLV has been to four Final Fours, so we are proud to talk about the many great former players and coaches that have made UNLV Runnin' Rebel basketball so special.”
It appears Sheriff Rice, Deputy Augmon and the rest of their posse have the Rebels off and runnin’ once more.