After the final two Patrick Ewing teams at Georgetown failed to do it, I thought no college basketball team would ever again go through a full season undefeated. So listen up, because I hardly ever say this: I might be wrong.
Who's going to beat Nevada-Las Vegas?
(Oh sure, the San Antonio Spurs -- provided David Robinson stays out of foul trouble.)
Sunday's demolition of Arkansas at Arkansas convinced me. I had that game pegged as a De'ja` Vu Special, a revisiting of the 1968 Ambush At The Astrodome, where Houston with Elvin Hayes upset UCLA with Lew Alcindor, 71-69. (To close the analogy, I anticipated UNLV coming back and crushing Arkansas in the Final Four, like UCLA did to Houston, by 32 points.) The comparison stood up for one half. Then, Vegas kicked into turbo, and outscored the country's No. 2 team by 27 points in less than 14 minutes, and I wondered how come the NBA expanded to Orlando and Minnesota when these guys were available. Don't kid yourself about that seven-point final spread, this was a 30-pointer, an avalanche.
So who can stop Vegas? The last best hope in the regular season -- and I don't see anybody rushing to the phone to call their bookie -- is at New Mexico State on Feb. 25. The Aggies are ranked 12th, and they beat Vegas at home last year. Barring that, you have to look ahead to the Final Four in Indianapolis, because UNLV is lock-city to get there. The Dreamer's Special would be Indiana, playing in its own backyard, and juiced to deny Vegas from erasing 1976's 32-0 Hoosiers from the record books as the last unbeaten national champs. A Cinderella story, right? Forget about it. Lay the points, bet the pumpkin.
Vegas is a great team, already on the same shelf with Georgetown '85, North Carolina '82, Indiana '76 and N.C. State '74, and climbing towards the level of the Alcindor and Bill Walton teams at UCLA, and the Bill Russell teams at USF. The Rebels have no weakness. They will beat you short with Larry Johnson, beat you long with Anderson Hunt. You can't run with Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony. You can't hide from Johnson. They pass, they defend like crazy, and they score. What else is there? Johnson makes the best outlet pass since Wes Unseld, and he bangs like Buck Williams. He's a cinch lottery pick. Augmon is Dennis Rodman with a jump shot. He's a lottery pick too. Hunt and Anthony will both go in the first round. Talk about talent, Vegas is the Travelling Wilburys.
Still, I didn't think any team could get through a season unbeaten anymore, because of TV. There was so much money in the pot, it made all the conferences better top to bottom. Look at the Big East. Every week Georgetown, St. John's, Pitt and Syracuse are either knocking off each other, or getting blindsided by Providence, UConn, Seton Hall or Villanova. As if conference play wasn't tough enough, the TV swag has bred terrific, though dangerous, intersectional games. Top 20 teams like Duke, Arizona and LSU are routinely in harm's way. Since 1984, when Virginia got into the tournament with a 17-11 record and reached the Final Four, some schools have realized that good losses can be more influential than empty wins. Most good programs no longer urgently pad their schedules with a whole lot of St. Leos.
Nobody from the top conferences such as the Big East, ACC, Big Eight, Big Ten, SEC or the emerging Pac-10 could go unbeaten. Sleeper teams from lesser conferences, like Southern Mississippi or East Tennessee State, are unlikely to get through the tournament intact. My miscalculation was ignoring the rare great team from a soft league -- like UNLV. What the hell is the Big West anyway? And this season, Vegas got lucky in its dangerous intersectional games: Michigan State was overrated; Missouri isn't up to par; Louisville dropped off the table. If UNLV had any anxiety, it was for Arkansas. We saw how that turned out.
It says here that Vegas will win the national championship, its second in a row, making UNLV the first repeat champion since UCLA 18 years ago. It also says here that Coach Jerry Tarkanian shouldn't be on the bench for this one -- he should be serving the two-year suspension the NCAA told the school to pop on him in 1977, the one he's never served. Tark got an injunction against the university suspending him. The NCAA fought it for 13 years, all the way to the Supreme Court, and finally won. Then, in a bizarre fit of Monty Hall Justice, the NCAA declined to suspend Tarkanian and instead offered him and UNLV this choice: Sit out the tournament this year, or sit out the tournament and live TV next year. If you had four starters coming back from a national champion, which would you take? Tark's mama didn't raise no fool.
Spare me how the NCAA pursued Tark obsessively. He's the one who sent the matter to civil court, the NCAA merely joined him there. Spare me how the poor UNLV student-athletes are being punished for something they didn't do. There are no virgins in big-time college basketball. Every one of these players knew who Tark was and what hung over him when they signed on. If justice delayed is justice denied, what's justice deferred? Or is it just one of the side bets you can make in Nevada but no place else?
Jerry Tarkanian must be a super coach. He's got 585 wins. He's got a great team. And nobody's laid a glove on him yet, not even the law. Led by Larry Johnson, Coach Jerry Tarkanian traded sanctions next year for a probable second straight NCAA championship.