Two frequently heard statements cause coach Jerry Tarkanian to run his stubby hands through his thinning hair. One is that his Nevada Las Vegas basketball team doesn't play defense. The other is that he is the No. 1 rules violator among the nation's college coaches.
To critics of his defensive teachings, he answers: "All I ask is that they watch my team play before saying anything. People look at our scores and say, "Defense? No way." But they are wrong."
To critics of his ethical conduct, he says: "I've got a bad rap, so bad I hate to talk about it. The word is out on me, that's all. But we have good kids in our program and we run it right. I just hope we are vindicated in the end."
But no matter what Tarkanian says, the probing questions continue. And they'll get tougher this week, when he takes his Running Rebals to Atlanta as the favorites to win this year's NCAA basketball championship.
There probably has never been a situation like it prior to an NCAA tournament: the coach of the playoff favorite trying to convince people that, yes, his team does practice something other than 30-foot jumpers and, no, his players haven't been recruited illegally and then allowed to skip going to classes.
There is little question that the NCAA would have preferred almost any team other than Las Vegas to reach the final four, especially if the Rebals are subsequently placed on probation. The result could be most embarrasing for both groups.
And there is little question that Tarkanian thinks the NCAA is out to nail him, no matter where he works in the college ranks. Despite a record of violations at Long Beach State, he claims he is being persecuted mainly because he blasted the NCAA's investigative techniques and questioned the objectivity of its investigators.
Caught in the middle of this feud are the Vegas players and fans, who have combined to bring excitement to that part of the town that does not fall under the bright lights and long nights of the Strip.
Vegas is actually two communities: the gambling district and the residential area, which resembles most small cities in western America. The basketball team's success has brought out the rooting best in the residents and they have responded by contributing more than $700,000 to the Vegas athletic program. Only 2 per cent of that amount comes from corporate interests.
Among the boosters are such celebrities as Frank Sinatra and Joey Bishop and former baseball star Lee Walls, who now is bald and sports the flashy clothes of a promoter, which he is. Walls sits at the end of the Vegas bench as sort of an unofficial mascot.
Tarkanian is short, stubby, nearly bald and has the face of a corner hotdog vendor. He chews towels and fingernails with equal vigor, yeld constantly in a growl worthy of the late Smokey the Bear and is more superstitious than even Lefty Driesell, if that's possible.
He also is probably the least recognized tok coach in the country. Mention his name and people automatically think of his NCAA problems. But link his coaching record with any other name and that person would be acclaimed a genius.
In nine seasons as a major college coach, he he won 223 games and lost only 35, a winning touch of 86 per cent. (In his last nine years, John Wooden won 95 per cent of his games). Toss in six seasons in California's tough junior college ranks and that record imporves to 421-48 (89 per cent).
What makes this even more impressive is that Tarkanian has won with two opposite styles. In junior college and at Long Beach, he was a ball-control coach, emphazizing defense and high percentage inside shots. His best players, other than Ed Ratleff, were big men like Leonard Gray, Sam Robinson and George Trapp. At Vegas, without the physical big men, he switched to run-and-gun, nonstop basketball and still is hard to beat.
The change is style came during his first year in Las Vegas, when he found himself with four blue-chip freshmen (the best recruiting class in the nation) and no center. He opened things up, began substituting freely, using eight players almost equally, pressing relentlessly and winning almost every time out.
The keys to this team remain unchanged: quickness, outstanding shooting (regulars shoot 52 per cent), good conditioning and strong enough defense to cause an average of 26 turnovers a game. This system produces 2 1/2 sho every minute, 90 a contest and, ino ne outing, 79 points in a half.
Add to this nice blend Tarkanian's master touch as a recruiter - his ability to relate to black, city-raised players is legendary in California - and four years of experience and the result is the tough cookie North Carolina must face Saturday. The eight talented players Carolina will worry about are:
Glen Gondrezick (senior, 6-6, 215), the leading rebounder (11.5) and the nation's unofficial leader in taking chargefouls (he has averages four a game). He is the guts and hustle of the team.
Eddie Owens (senio 6-7, 210), one of the few Regels who instincitively drives for the basket. The team's top scorer (21.8), he gets the pressure points and takes most of the high-percentage shots.
Sam Smith (Senior, 6-4, 201), a reserve last year who produced instant offense. As a starter this season, he always takes the first shot of the game. His range, Tarkanian says, extends far behond 30 feet. "When Sam tries to shoot inside 15 feet, he can't adjust," said his coach with a straight face. His brother is former Missouri great Willie Smith.
Robert Smith (senior, 5-11, 165), the team playmaker and nice guy. Smith says the team prayer, plays the best guard defense and sometimes thinks about assists instead of shots.Like Sam Smith (no relation), a junior college transfer with outstanding high school credentials.
Larry Moffett (junior, 6-9, 204), the inside intimidator and No. 2 rebounder (8-8). Also a junior college transfer.
Lewis Brown (senior, 6-11, 225) who lost his starting spot to Moffett, this year.Brown is the squad dissident. He is unhappy about his lack of playing time and says so, but Tarkanian is unhappy about his team-high turnover total.
Tony Smith (sophomore, M6-1, 166), a transfer from Houston who once was Michigan's high school player of the year. He is a streak shooter, especially from the top of the key.
Reggie Theus (sophemore, 6-7, 215), the most gifted of all the Rebels. Tarkanian's first substitute, he lacks only maturity to be a great player, but his strength and outside shooting can make him unstoppable.
All but Moffett and Tony Smith average in double figures for this team, which has been without best rebounder Jackie Robinsons, one of the four original recruits, who broke an ankle just before the start of the season.
"It took me awhile," Tarkanian admits, "to adjust to thinking 30-footers are good shots. I tell them, when they think theycan hit it, put it up. As long as they go in enough for us to keep winning, I'm happy."