Las Vegas is the gaudy, grown-up never-never land where anything can, and often does, happen. But even the Shark himself, Jerry Tarkanian, was surprised by the show he took in Saturday night.
It was not loud or glittery or even topless. Just very, very fast. His own Runnin' Rebels pounded the 15th-ranked team in the country, a squad with two seven-footers as talented as they are tall. The score read UNLV 117, San Francisco 82.
"There's no question about it. They surprised me last night," Tarkanian said today, taking in a booster club party before Monday night's game against Maryland. "We are so young -- six of our top eight players are new; four of them are freshmen. And you never know how youth is going to handle emotion.
"If anything, I thought they might blow us out."
The display of full-court pressure defense and 80-mph offense brought to mind the exquisite 1976-77 UNLV squad than ran to the NCAA final four, where it was beaten by another powerhouse, North Crolina.
That UNLV team led the nation in scoring with an average of 107.1 points a game, utilizing eight starters almost equally. The "Hard-Way Eight," as they came to be known, contained present professionals Reggie Thus (Bulls), Glen Gondrezick (Knicks) and Robert Smith (Nuggets).
Last year, the depth dissolved.The break slowed to bicycle speed and the team averaged 88 points a game.
But even that team had Theus, a striking junior who might have been the top college player in America this year if the Bulls hadn't scooped him in the first round of the NBA draft. Without Theus, no one knew what to expect of this year's Rebel team.
Saturday night, the Vegas fans, who for seven years have gobbled up every one of the 6,376 tickets to "Tark's Shark Tank" (Las Vegas Convention Center), got a clue.
The full-court press forced 38 USF turnovers, almost one a minute. UNLV converted them into 37 points.
The Runnin' Rebels ran again. To make the victory even sweeter, the high-point man was gangly forward Michael Burns with 21 points. Burns was born and reared in Las Vegas.
"We play everybody the same," said Tarkanian, speaking over the band blaring in the background. "We play full-court pressure defense and try to run like we used to."
"Our first eight are at least as quick as the eight a few years ago," Tarkanian allowed, which brought up his new, one inch-from the-scalp haircut.
"I got it cut short," he said, "to make me quick."
The only starters returning to UNLV from last year's 20-8 team are forward Earl Evans, a transfer student from Southern Cal., and long-range specialist Tony Smith.
Brett Vroman, the former UCLA sub drafted by the NBA in the fourth round last year after spending the season redshirting, starts at center. And another just-off redshirt duty, guard Flintie Ray Williams from Pepperdine, starts with Smith in the back court. Burns, who Tarkanian says has "unbelievable talent," starts at forward, and off the bench come freshmen Michael (Little Fella) Lloyd and 5-foot-10 Freddie (Machine Gun) Thompson, the most surprising of the group, at guard or small forward.
Tarkanian expects a stiffer challenge Monday night, even though the Terrapins (2-1), ranked 19th, are not as highly regarded as San Francisco.
USF, with its seven-footers (Bill Cartwright and Wallace Bryant), was tagged by Tarkanian as "the biggest team in America." But the Dons were not particularly quick. Tarkanian expects the Terrapins to give the Rebels more problems with their speed.
In reburn, Vegas could plague Maryland with its press. Maryland, which lost the ball 25 times in its 81-68 victory over Air Force Saturday night, has not seen a press like UNLV's, and must depend on two freshmen to break it: point guards Dutch Morley and Reggie Jackson.
UNLV is completing the second leg of a two-year NCAA probation, an ongoing event that has touched Congress and the courts and brought considerable attention to the practices of the NCAA investigative bodies.
Tarkanian says of the ordeal, "I never even think about it. It never even comes up."
That is probably not exactly true. But it looks like Tarkanian has a fine team to distract him.
Elsewhere, Howard (2-0) will try to remain unbeaten when the Bison visit George Mason tonight for a 7:30 p.m. game, and Catholic (0-4)will travel to Philadelphia for an 8 p.m. contest with St. Joseph's.
The Patriots (1-1) are led by forward David Skaff, who has scored 52 points, and sophomore Andre Gaddy, 6 feet 10, who is averaging 18 points and 11 rebounds.
The Patriots must contain Bison guard Nathaniel Speight (16.5 average), a wily floor general, and freshman forward Larry Spriggs (12.5), a strong offensive rebounder.
Catholic will have no breather against a St. Joseph's squad that beat Providence by 11 points Saturday. The Hawks, coached by former American University mentor Jim Lynam, have a strong front line led by sophomore Boo Williams and senior Norman Black.
Several area teams are trying to recover from injuries.
American U. center Bob Harvey, who suffered a concussion against Catholic U. Thursday night, is expected to be released from Georgetown University Hospital today. It is doubtful if he will play in Eagle road games this week at Rider and Delaware.
George Washington suffered a double blow last weekend. Starting guard Bob Lindsay partically tore a ligament in the first minute of Saturday's 75-71 loss to Villanova and will be out four to six weeks. Starting forward Tom Glenn broke his left hand dunking the ball in practice Friday night and will miss at least three weeks.
Georgetown center Tom Scates missed the Hoyas' 71-59 victory over St. Bonaventure Saturday. His sprained ankle makes his availability against Indiana Wednesday at Capital Centre questionable.
Virginia forward Mike Owens missed the Cavaliers' 65-61 loss to Old Dominion Saturday night with a leg injury and probably won't play this week. Lee Raker, the Cavs' other starting forward, injured his neck against Penn and saw only reserve duty Saturday.