Gene Bartow has watched some of college basketball's best teams from an opposing bench. At Memphis State, he coached against -- and lost to -- the unbeaten UCLA team in the 1973 National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament final. Three years later, Bartow was at UCLA when the Bruins lost twice to undefeated Indiana.
But the team Bartow saw clobber Alabama-Birmingham, 109-68, last December could be the best he has seen in 35 years of coaching, he said. At the time, the Blazers were 3-0 and a little full of themselves. "The night we played them, they could have scored 200 points," Bartow recalled this week. "They did anything they wanted to."
That team, of course, is Nevada-Las Vegas. The Runnin' Rebels are top-ranked, unbeaten and looking for their place in college basketball history. Trying to become the first repeat national champion since UCLA in 1973, UNLV (30-0) begins defense of its title when it meets Montana on Friday in Tucson, Ariz.
The NCAA tournament begins tomorrow at four sites, including Cole Field House in College Park.
And consider this frightening thought: Most coaches agree that this season's UNLV team is better than the one that set a championship-game record for margin of victory when it blew out Duke by 30 points last season in Denver. The Runnin' Rebels have a 41-game winning streak and more importantly, an aura of invincibility about them.
"I think they're beatable, but I don't think anybody can beat them," said Princeton coach Pete Carril, whose team's much-ballyhooed early-season matchup turned into a 69-35 demolition of the Tigers. "They've got everything: rebounding, inside scorers who can hit the three, outside scorers who can go inside, defense, leadership and great coaching."
And a well-publicized reprieve from the NCAA. After getting hit with a one-year ban from the tournament, UNLV was allowed to begin its sentence next season after the team's seniors -- All-Americans Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson, as well as point guard Greg Anthony and George Ackles -- are gone. The players were reportedly considering a lawsuit against the NCAA if the Runnin' Rebels weren't allowed to defend their championship.
Now the obvious question: If UNLV is such an overwhelming overdog, why even play the tournament? The answer can be found in recent history, most notably in Georgetown's shocking 66-64 championship game loss to Villanova at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., six years ago. The Hoyas, led by Patrick Ewing and looking to repeat, were upset by a Wildcats team that shot an astounding 22 of 28 from the field.
"When you play in a one-game situation, anything can happen," said Georgetown coach John Thompson, whose Hoyas could meet UNLV on Sunday in Tucson, Ariz., if they get by Vanderbilt on Friday. "If Vegas played anyone in a seven-game series, they'd win. Invincibility is created by fans and the media. Any team that has won a national championship has talent."
Said North Carolina coach Dean Smith: "I don't think Vegas is a sure thing. College basketball doesn't work that way."
Said Carril: "It's the glorious uncertainties of the game. What happens if one of their big guys gets into foul trouble? Some nights the shots are falling. But they'd have to help you. If you play a perfect game, they'd still have to be off theirs."
What makes the Runnin' Rebels more difficult than most dominant teams is their flexibility in style. They can run it up or slow it down. They can fire away from the outside or pound the ball inside. They can play straight-up man-to-man or go to their famous "Amoeba" defense, a catchy name for a suffocating matchup zone.
"They can play you about any way you want and beat you at your own game," said Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote, whose Spartans lost to UNLV by 24 this season. "What makes them so good along with their talent is that Jerry gets them to play so hard. But he gets all his teams to play hard. He has a knack."
Jerry Tarkanian's coaching ability is the ingredient that often gets overlooked in this seemingly perfect recipe. Partly because of the talent -- six players could wind up in the National Basketball Association -- and partly because of his image, the man's sleepy-eyed demeanor belies his reputation as a defensive genius.
Tarkanian's running battles with the NCAA, including a 13-year lawsuit that was settled before last season's Final Four, have overshadowed a career record of 595-119. Tarkanian, who began the season a percentage point behind the legendary Clair Bee, has become the winningest coach in Division I history.
"I certainly think Jerry has done a marvelous job with this team, but he's done a great job with a lot of his teams," said Smith, whose program's image is in sharp contrast to UNLV's. "To me, the key for a coach is to get the players to do what he wants, and Jerry's teams have done that."
What Tarkanian also has cultivated is an us-against-the world attitude among his players. It was evident last year in Denver, and it seems to be working. For the most part, the opposition appears to be psyched out. After Arkansas lost at home last month to UNLV -- the Razorbacks, No. 2 at the time, were blown away shortly after halftime -- center Oliver Miller said, "They're ready for the NBA."
But the Georgetown players, who can't wait to take a shot at the Runnin' Rebels if they beat Vanderbilt on Friday, may have the best idea about how to beat UNLV. Treat them as if they were, say, Hawaii-Hilo. "If you treat them with respect, they're going to blow you away," said freshman guard Charles Harrison.
"They're just another basketball team," said junior center Alonzo Mourning. "They dribble like everyone else. They shoot like everyone else. They play defense like everyone else."
Maybe just a little better.
Or maybe a lot.
Five heavy favorites that won the championship
1990: Nevada-Las Vegas beat Duke, 103-73, at McNichols Arena in Denver. Everyone expected the Runnin' Rebels to win, but their performance was jaw-dropping.
1976: Indiana beat Michigan, 86-68, at The Spectrum in Philadelphia. The Hoosiers had two first-team All-Americans in Scott May and Kent Benson, and one of the best backcourts ever in Bob Wilkerson and Quinn Buckner. And a fellow named Knight.
1973: UCLA beat Memphis State, 87-66, at the St. Louis Arena. The Bruins, in the middle of an 88-game winning streak, were led by All-American Bill Walton, who made a tournament-record 21 of 22 field-goal tries.
1968: The Lew Alcindor-led Bruins of UCLA beat North Carolina, 78-55, at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. After losing to Houston ** and seeing its 47-game winning streak end during the regular season, UCLA exacted a bit of revenge with a 32-point beating of the Cougars in the semifinals. Dean Smith still thinks this was the best college team he has ever coached against.
1956: San Francisco beat Iowa, 83-71, at McGaw Hall in Evanston, Ill. The Dons, led by Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, capped a two-year reign as national champions and were in the midst of a 60-game winning streak.
Five heavy favorites that lostthe championship
1985: Georgetown lost to Villanova, 66-64, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. The defending-champion Hoyas, with All-American center Patrick Ewing, watched as the unranked Wildcats set an NCAA championship game record for field-goal accuracy (22 of 28). Who was the star? A fellow named Harold Jensen.
1983: After beating Louisville with an array of dunks in the semifinals, Houston lost to No. 16 North Carolina State, 54-52. The Wolfpack slowed the game down to a crawl and, after the Cougars blew a big lead by falling into the trap, won when Dereck Whittenburg's air ball at the buzzer was dunked in by Lorenzo Charles at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M.
1977: Michigan, ranked No. 1 in both polls, lost to North Carolina-Charlotte, 75-68, at the Midwest Regional final at Rupp Arena. But UNC-Charlotte, with Cedric "Cornbread" Maxwell, was not a true Cinderella. The 49ers were eliminated in the semifinals by Marquette, at the Omni in Atlanta. The Warriors knocked off North Carolina, 67-59, and sent a joyous and tearful Al McGuire straight to the television booth.
1966: Top-ranked Kentucky beat No. 2 Duke in the semifinals and figured to do the same to little-known Texas Western in the championship game at Cole Field House in College Park. But "Rupp's Runts" ran into a bunch of street-tough players from New York, Detroit and Gary, Ind., along with El Paso native Bobby Joe Hill, recruited by Don Haskins. And they lost, 72-65.
1963: Cincinnati's two-year run as national champion ended when the Bearcats were stopped by Loyola of Ill., a small urban school from Chicago, 60-58, in overtime at Freedom Hall in Louisville.
UNLV game by game
!109 Ala.-Birmingham 68
131 at Nevada 81
95 at Michigan State 75
69 Princeton 35
101 Florida State 69
92 at Pacific 72
89 James Madison 65
98 Fullerton State 67
95 San Jose State 63
124 Utah State 93
117 at Fresno State 91
117 at UC Irvine 76
114 Long Beach 63
88 at UC Santa Barbara 71
97 at Louisville 85
126 at Utah State 83
88 at San Jose State 64
115 Rutgers 73
113 Fresno State 64
112 at Arkansas 105
98 UC Santa Barbara 71
86 New Mexico State 74
122 at Long Beach State 75
80 Pacific 59
114 UC Irvine 86
86 at New Mexico State 74
104 at Fullerton State 83
49 Long Beach State-x 29
95 UC Santa Barbara-x 67
98 Fresno State-x 74
x-Big West Conference tournament, Long Beach, Calif.