LAS VEGAS, DEC. 19 -- Today provided a fair microcosm of life around the University of Nevada-Las Vegas basketball program: The Runnin' Rebels celebrated their rampant success tonight, but only after spending the afternoon defending their honor and plotting their course in the face of the latest salvo of accusations by the NCAA enforcement staff.
UNLV hoisted its NCAA championship banner from last season to the rafters of the Thomas and Mack Center with a glitzy ceremony -- including a mini fireworks display -- that preceded this evening's engaging matchup against 25th-ranked Princeton, which resulted in a 69-35 Vegas runaway.
But the euphoria was dulled considerably by the cloud that has thickened here over the past 24 hours, beginning with Tuesday night's delivery of a letter-of-inquiry from the NCAA that reportedly outlines 29 new charges of rule violations -- many of them centered on the Rebels' tempestous 1986 recruitment of New York City prep star Lloyd Daniels.
The school is expected to disclose the allegations Thursday. The letter reportedly includes claims of mismanagement of a scholarship fund, as well as the NCAA buzzword charge: a "lack of institutional control" relating to the Daniels case.
The Rebels already are banned from 1992 postseason play and cannot appear on live television during the 1991-92 season; some observers here familiar with the charges seem to believe that this run-in with the NCAA could produce sanctions approximating the NCAA's "death penalty." There even are rumblings that Coach Jerry Tarkanian might step down following the season.
University officials were mum about the allegations, which were contained in a 40-page stack of materials that UNLV President Robert Maxson said he had time only to peruse by afternoon. Athletic Director Dennis Finfrock tonight declined to comment on the specifics of the charges, saying only that the university intends to "cooperate fully with the NCAA's investigation."
"It doesn't mean anything to us," UNLV senior forward Larry Johnson said. "It's not our fight."
Tarkanian, who was involved in a 13-year legal struggle with the NCAA that ended just three weeks ago with the delaying of UNLV's postseason ban from this season until next, declined to comment.
Tarkanian's attorney, Chuck Thompson, called the latest allegations "a travesty . . . an absolute travesty." He said the NCAA's investigators contradicted their own findings in making the charges.
Tarkanian previously has denied that major violations occurred in connection with the Daniels case, and Thompson said he would stand by those statements. The charges reportedly do not implicate Tarkanian to a great extent anyway.
The university's legal counsel, Brad Booke, said UNLV will begin its own investigation as soon as possible. "We're here to be a good, rules-abiding member of the institution," he said. "This university is tired of being under the gray cloud and being the ugly stepchild of college sports. We aim to get it right."
Maxson said the school wants to be "a member in good standing with the NCAA" and will do whatever is necessary to respond to the allegations appropriately. The university has at least 60 days to formulate its answer, and there appears to be a great deal of sentiment among school officials not associated with the basketball program for UNLV to resist fighting the charges aggressively.
The centerpiece of the new investigation undoubtedly is Daniels, who reportedly was the target of widespread rule violations while UNLV was recruiting him. Daniels never played for UNLV and is currently on the taxi squad for Albany of the Continental Basketball Association.
Daniels's lawyer, David Chesnoff, told the Associated Press that he doesn't know if Daniels will help UNLV if the school attempts to contest the charges. "What was done for him?" Chesnoff asked. "The school threw him out and the NCAA's been torturing him."
Tonight's game showed clearly why the Rebels were so eager to be able to defend their NCAA title. Top-ranked UNLV (4-0) limited the Tigers (7-1) to 15 second-half points and set a school record for fewest points allowed in a game. UNLV rushed to an 11-0 lead in 4:52, watched Princeton pull within two but pulled away in the second half while the Tigers mustered but four points in the final 7:52.
Princeton committed 22 turnovers and shot 13 for 37. "They're a better team than that," Tarkanian said.
Said Tiger Kit Mueller: "They were playing a different game than us."