He's still here, still part of a show whose rules he loathes and whose leaders long have held him in especially low esteem. How many years has the NCAA been chasing Jerry Tarkanian? At least a dozen. Always, he manages to elude its Shark net.

Tarkanian has been the appealing college basketball rogue so long that one of the NCAA deputies hot on his trail once introduced him to his family at a convention.

That must have been some meeting. Imagine a marshal in the old west clutching his wife during a break in the annual hoedown and saying: "This here's the guy on all the wanted posters. Say howdy to Jesse James."

The NCAA first tried to trap Tarkanian in this very town, when he was coaching Long Beach State past everyone but John Wooden's nonpareil UCLA teams in the early '70s.

Tarkanian wiggled free, threw some double-knits and a whistle in his saddlebags and beat it to Vegas. Now he's back, as the 55-year-old leader of a gang that calls itself -- what else? -- the Runnin' Rebels.

However anyone chooses to regard Tarkanian as an educator and molder of character, one thing is obvious: he is an exceptional basketball coach.

Although hardly Father Flanagan, he takes players unhappy elsewhere and molds teams who play hard and smart. Coaches who figure they can beat Vegas with little preparation have a better chance of beating the house at Caesars.

Today, Tarkanian goes against his buddy, Lefty Driesell, not only as one of the special survivors of sport but also with the weight of the western world smack on his surprisingly unimpressive shoulders.

That's the western world of U.S. undergraduate basketball. Vegas is the last great hope that somebody this side of the Rockies might stumble into the third round of the NCAA tournament.

Once upon a time, the West was where everybody came to major in jab steps and off-balance jumpers in traffic. Lew Alcindor and Henry Bibby left the East for UCLA. Same with Gus Williams at Southern California.

Tarkanian also uprooted his share of sophisticated talent from eastern asphalt. Why wouldn't a kid migrate west?

A few gifted, though mush-minded, players went the other direction.

"But we'd send each of 'em nice notes," Tarkanian said. "We knew it wouldn't be long before they decided to come back."

By, say, the second snowstorm.

Lately, the trickle headed east has become a stampede. You even question the laws of gravity when two of the best prospects in California opt for Syracuse.

Tarkanian blames one of his kind, Dave Gavitt, who went from being one of the best basketball coaches in America to being an even better salesman. Gavitt's Big East games are in every living room in the country.

A great California high school player comes home from practice at 5 p.m., kicks his sneakers aside and flops on the sofa. He flips on the television, and to what? A Big East tipoff.

The Shark also knows how to maneuver in these troubled waters. He's never recruited conventionally before. Why change? And while UCLA, Southern California and the entire Pac-10 are in decline, Tarkanian is humming along at 32-4.

"We've been the best in the West for the last four years," Tarkanian insisted yesterday, "but it's been the best-kept secret around.

"We lost to eventual champion N.C. State by a point in the regionals three years ago; we gave eventual champion Georgetown a good game for a half two years ago; we played well against Kentucky last year."

That might be a surprise. For a cosmic shock, consider this: Tarkanian's starting point guard was at home instead of here during the final practice before the West regional opener this week.

Mark Wade was -- get this -- taking an exam.

You imagine Reagan will emcee the next Sandinista dinner dance before a Runnin' Rebel opts for reading over rebounding. It's happened. Ever since it was revealed not long ago that Tarkanian's gang had an abysmal graduation rate.

Full-bore as usual, Tarkanian now has two academic counselors. He remains cloudy about graduation stats during his 13 years at Vegas, but vows it will be "practically 100 percent" the next few years.

He is expansive and bitter about the NCAA. He insists the enforcement staff has a list of schools it will squish with its enormous heel for tiny oversights. He also hints there are schools who could pay their players in Walter Byers' office and the NCAA would wink and let it slide.

"Texas football," he volunteers when you demand a for-instance. "None of us will live to see Texas football put on probation. Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps said a couple of years ago that the going rate for buying players was $10,000.

"A Southeastern Conference coach said at the time: 'If that's all it costs, put me down for two.' "

Tarkanian recites his familiar suggestions for reform: liberal policies for "humanistic behavior" and "burying" those who buy players.

What if Tarkanian were in charge of the NCAA for six months? What would happen?

"I'd clean it up," he said. "I'd show it right where to go."

He laughed.

"Only kidding," he said.

For a while, keeping Len Bias in check is enough to occupy his energy.