RUNNIN' QUESTION Can UNLV lose? Answer is near for favorite

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The question was being asked before the quest, or the season, began. It was repeated in February, as the University of Nevada-Las Vegas was about to play Arkansas.

It was asked when the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament started earlier this month, and at each stop along the way.

First in Tucson, Ariz., then in Seattle and now in Indianapolis.

One more time now: Can anybody beat the Runnin' Rebels?

Trying for its place in college basketball history, Nevada-Las Vegas (34-0) continues its pursuit of a second straight NCAA championship tomorrow night at the Hoosier Dome.

The Runnin' Rebels, seeking to become the first undefeated team to win a national title since Indiana in 1976 and the first to win back-to-back championships since UCLA in 1972 and 1973, meets Duke (30-7) in the second semifinal game.

North Carolina (29-5) and Kansas (26-7) play in the first game. The winners will play Monday night for the championship.

"I do feel there's a great deal of pressure on them," said North Carolina coach Dean Smith. "Everyone saying they're going to win is dangerous.

"Look at what happened to Georgetown in 1985 against Villanova or to Houston in 1983 against North Carolina State. Duke has time to prepare and, after what happened last year, they have a great psychological advantage."

But that's about all the Blue Devils, or anybody else for that matter, might have on a team that has won 45 straight games and beat Duke by 30 points, a record margin for an NCAA championship game, last yearin Denver.

Those looking for cracks in UNLV's seemingly impenetrable shell might have to put the Runnin' Rebels under a microscope. It is not foreign territory for embattled coach Jerry Tarkanian and his players.

Despite being under an unceasing NCAA investigation for most of the past two years -- or more -- and despite rumors that Tarkanian will retire from coaching or leave for professional basketball after this season, UNLV continues to pummel the opposition.

The closest any team has come to the Runnin' Rebels in this year's tournament is Georgetown, an eight-point second-round loser in Tucson. UNLV's average margin of victory in this NCAA tournament is 17.8 points.

"The ongoing battles have been very hard, very difficult," said Tarkanian, whose NCAA troubles at UNLV began with a lawsuit 14 years ago, were settled out of court last season, then started again this season with a new list of allegations.

"It's really hurt our recruiting. I've enjoyed my 18 years coaching here. I love the place. My intentions are to return next year. But you never can say for certain what's going to happen."

Tarkanian, 60, might tire of fighting the NCAA and leave after this season. With the team headed for probation next year, and with three of his seniors probably headed for the National Basketball Association, few believe Tarkanian wants to coach away from the spotlight.

Regardless of what happens this season, Tarkanian's achievements have been overlooked by his career-long hassles with the NCAA. Though he probably will win his 600th game faster than anyone else, and though he has the highest winning percentage (.834) of anyone who has coached college basketball, Tarkanian's name is more synonymous with sinning than winning.

"Certainly, it's been overshadowed," Tarkanian said.

Smith, the only active coach with more victories (717) than Tarkanian, probably is at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of his program's image. But Smith said he has a great deal of respect for the job Tarkanian has done.

"He gets the players to do what he asks them to," Smith said.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said: "Jerry's a great coach. If you watch his teams, they've been amazingly consistent. They play hard all the time."

But even Tarkanian says the pressure has gotten to the Runnin' Rebels a bit. After beating Seton Hall, 77-65, in the West Regional final at the Kingdome in Seattle, Tarkanian gave his players a couple of days off.

"They're tired," said Tarkanian. "There are a lot of outside pressures."

It might explain why junior guard Anderson Hunt, last year's Final Four MVP, has struggled during the tournament, shooting 39 percent from the field; why senior guard Greg Anthony is at 41 percent; why each of UNLV's last three opponents stayed close for at least a half.

"Sometimes, we expect too much out of ourselves," Anthony said last week in Seattle. "We're human, too. But I think we've put our bad games behind us."

Senior forward and consensus All-American Larry Johnson said: "We're not thinking about last year. That's past history. We're only thinking about current history."

Or at least making history. The Rebels, in addition to possibly taking their place alongside the 1975-76 Hoosiers and the 1971-72 and '72-73 Bruins, also might join the 1988-89 Kansas team that wasn't allowed to defend its national championship.

That's assuming UNLV wins at the Hoosier Dome. Considering that nobody has been able to answer the puzzle of how to beat Tarkanian and his team, it's not a difficult assumption to make.

Nevada-Las Vegas at a glance

Location: Las Vegas

Founded: 1957

Record: 34-0 (45 straight victories), Big West regular-season and postseason champion, West Regional champion.

Coach's record: Jerry Tarkanian (Fresno State, 1955) 599-119 in 23 years at UNLV and Long Beach State; 483-102 in 18 years at UNLV.

How the Runnin' Rebels got to the Final Four: Beat Montana (99-65) and Georgetown (62-54) in Tucson, Ariz.; beat Utah (83-66) and Seton Hall (77-65) in Seattle.

NCAA tournament record: 30-10, reached the Final Four four times (lost in semifinals in 1977, 1987). Won NCAA championship last year over Duke.

Most underrated: Greg Anthony, senior point guard, who sets the tone for the defense and gets the ball to the big men.

They went there: Representative James Bilbray, D-Nev., Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham, San Francisco Giants third baseman Matt Williams.

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