"1991 UNLV Runnin' Rebels Basketball Team"

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Greatest College Basketball Teams:  Spotlight 1991 UNLV

The 1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels basketball team went 27-0 during the regular season and 34-1 overall, suffering their only loss in the Final Four.  The Runnin’ Rebels were ranked number one from the beginning of the season to the end.  “They were the most unselfish and hardest working team I ever had,” UNLV’s controversial coach Jerry Tarkanian said.  “That’s what really made them special.”  Tarkanian also thought his 1991 Runnin’ Rebels played the best defense of any team, ever.

The Runnin’ Rebels won the National Championship the prior season, pounding Duke 103-73.  After the game, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said “This wasn't a game of X's and O's. It was one of complete domination." 

The 1991 UNLV team returned four starters, Greg Anthony, Anderson Hunt, Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson.  They were widely expected to repeat as National Champions.  Due to the ongoing battle between Jerry Tarkanian and the NCAA, however, it looked like the Runnin’ Rebels wouldn’t get a chance to play in the 1991 NCAA tournament at all.

“Tark the Shark” started his Division I coaching career at Long Beach State in 1968.  Long Beach State went 120-20 under Tarkanian and made it to the NCAA Tournament in 1970, 71, 72 and 73, losing to eventual champion UCLA in 1970, 71 and 72.  As soon as he left, Long Beach State was given probation for Tarkanian’s recruiting violations.

From Long Beach State, Jerry Tarkanian moved to UNLV.  UNLV had been a Division I school for only three years when he arrived.  In 1977, Tarkanian led the Runnin’ Rebels to the Final Four.  Shortly before the 1977-78 season, the NCAA put UNLV on two years’ probation for alleged “questionable practices” and pressured UNLV into suspending Tarkanian as coach for two years.  Tarkanian sued, claiming the suspension violated his right to due process.  In September 1977, a Nevada judge reinstated Tarkanian as coach.  The NCAA appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Tarkanian and affirmed the Nevada decision in 1988. 

Meanwhile, the NCAA launched numerous additional investigations of Tarkanian and UNLV, including an investigation into the recruitment of Lloyd Daniels, a prospect from New York City.  Daniels was arrested for buying crack cocaine from an undercover police officer and never attended UNLV, but the NCAA later discovered that Daniels was led to UNLV by Richard Perry, a gambler with multiple convictions for fixing sporting events. 

The endless stream of investigations took its toll on Tarkanian and his players during the 1990 season.  The night before the NCAA Championship game, Power Forward Larry Johnson said, "We want to win this championship bad so that the NCAA guys will have to stare at the trophy on coach’s desk when they ask all those questions during the next investigation."

Being forced to stare at the trophy did not deter the NCAA.  In July of 1990, the NCAA announced that UNLV would be banned from post-season play in 1991.

Tarkanian and UNLV didn’t give up.  First, Tarkanian called a press conference to announce he had offered not to coach the Runnin’ Rebels during the 1991 tournament if the NCAA would allow his team to compete in it.  When that didn’t work, Tarkanian and UNLV requested and received reconsideration as part of a deal with the NCAA.  The NCAA would permit UNLV to compete in the 1991 tournament in exchange for (1) Tarkanian ceasing further litigation against the NCAA, (2) Tarkanian and UNLV agreeing to four mutually exclusive NCAA violations and (3) UNLV agreeing to be banned from TV appearances during the 1991-92 season and to be banned from the 1992 NCAA tournament.

Shortly after the 1991 season was over, the Las Vegas Review Journal published photos of players Anderson Hunt, David Butler and Moses Scurry in a hot tub with gambler Richard Perry.  The hot tub picture led to Tarkanian’s resignation at the end of the 1992 season, but Tarkanian had the last laugh. 

Tarkanian sued the NCAA for harassment, claiming two decades of torment.  “As far as I’m concerned,” Tarkanian said, “they were worse than the gestapo.”  Although the NCAA did not admit harassing Tarkanian, it settled out of court in 1998, paying him $2.5 million.

The 1991 UNLV team was led by Power Forward Larry Johnson.  Johnson was an All-American each of his two years at UNLV and was National Player of the Year in 1991.  Johnson averaged 22.7 points and 10.9 rebounds per game in 1991. 

“We knew once we signed Larry we were going to be really good,” Tarkanian said of Johnson.  “Larry was the ultimate team player.”

Johnson set the UNLV season field goal percentage record in 1991 at .662 and he holds the career field goal percentage record as well at .643.  Johnson also holds that UNLV record for rebounds in a season with 457 in 1990. 

Johnson was the number one pick in the NBA draft.  Nicknamed “LJ” and “Grandmama” (for an advertisement where he dressed up as a grandmother), Johnson was NBA rookie of the year in 1992.  In a 10 year NBA career, Johnson averaged 16.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.

Small forward Stacey Augmon was an All-American in 1991.  He averaged 16.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.  Augmon was a tremendous defensive player and a great outside shooter.  Augmon shot 46.9 percent from three-point range in 1991.  He was named National Association of Basketball Coaches defensive player of the year in 1989, 1990 and 1991.  Augmon is tied with teammate Greg Anthony for the UNLV record for career steals with 275.

Augmon was the ninth pick in the 1991 NBA draft.  Nicknamed “Plastic Man” for his defensive skills, Augmon averaged 8.0 points and 3.2 rebounds per game in his 15 year NBA career.

Point guard Greg Anthony averaged 11.5 points and 8.9 assists per game for UNLV in 1991.  He holds the UNLV record for career assists (838) and is tied with Stacey Augmon for the UNLV record for career steals (275).  In 1990, Anthony set the UNLV single season steal record with 105.  Anthony played half the 1990 season with a broken jaw.  “He is the toughest guy around,” Tarkanian said of Anthony. 

Long Beach State’s coach, Seth Greenberg, had the displeasure of playing the 1991 Runnin’ Rebels three times.  After losing 114-63, 122-75 and 49-29, Greenberg said “[UNLV’s] biggest vulnerability is if Greg [Anthony] gets in foul trouble.  They can’t replace him.  Johnson may be the best player in the country, but Anthony is their key.”

Anthony was the 12th pick in the 1991 NBA draft.  In his 11-year career, Anthony averaged 7.3 points and 4 rebounds per game.

Shooting guard Anderson Hunt averaged 17.2 points per game for UNLV in 1991.   “Anderson was a great shooter and a perfect fit for our team,” Tarkanian said.  “He could also really play defense.”  Hunt holds the UNLV record for career three-pointers made (283) and attempted (739).  In 1990, Hunt was named the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA tournament after scoring 29 points in the NCAA Championship game on 12 of 16 shooting.  Hunt was named to the All-NCAA Tournament Team again in 1991.  At only 6’1”, Hunt was too small to play shooting guard in the NBA. 

George Ackles and Elmore Spencer shared duties at center for the 1991 UNLV team.  Despite each playing only about half of each game, they rank third and fourth all-time at UNLV for blocks in a season.  Ackles was the 29th pick in the 1991 NBA draft, but never signed with an NBA team.
Spencer was the 25th pick in the 1992 NBA draft and played five years in the NBA, averaging 5.9 points and 3.5 rebounds per game.

UNLV ended the 1990 season having won 11 games in a row.  After cutting the deal with the NCAA to enable the team to play in the 1991 tournament, UNLV was expected to repeat.  The Runnin’ Rebels started the season by drubbing UAB 109-68.  A week later, UNLV beat Nevada 131-81.  A week after that, UNLV beat Michigan State 95-75.  Princeton attempted to slow down the fast-breaking Runnin’ Rebels, but lost 69-35.  UNLV didn’t just beat their opponents, they crushed them.  The Runnin’ Rebels beat opponents by an average of 97.7 to 71.  “I would try and tell the guys how tough the games were going to be and they’d go out and win by 40,” Tarkanian said.

The Runnin’ Rebels outshot opponents 53.5 percent (the best in the nation) to 40 percent.  The Rebels also out-rebounded their opponents 42.5 to 34.8 (4th best in the nation).

On February 10, 1991, UNLV had their biggest regular season test.  The 19-0 number one Runnin’ Rebels went to Fayetteville to play 23-1 number two Arkansas. 

Arkansas led 50-46 at halftime.  “In the locker room we thought, so what?” UNLV point guard Greg Anthony said.  Seven minutes into the second half, UNLV took a 75-61 lead, outscoring Arkansas 29-11.    The Runnin’ Rebels coasted to a 112-105 victory.

After the game, Arkansas center Oliver Miller said, “They’re a great team with great talent.  They need to go to the NBA.”  Arkansas guard Lee Mayberry said, “We didn’t think they could run like that.”  Arkansas’ coach Nolan Richardson summed it up best.  “I think UNLV is the best team I’ve ever seen.  I’m not sure anyone else is even close.”

UNLV faced one other top 20 team during the 1990-91 regular season, New Mexico State, who ended the season ranked 15th.  UNLV beat New Mexico State twice, once at home and once on the road, each time by a score of 86-74. 

UNLV entered the NCAA tournament 30-0, with a 41 game winning streak.  “The key to going far in the NCAA tournament this year,” one pundit said, “is to avoid playing UNLV as long as possible.”  Many coaches of other teams agreed.  Jim Boeheim of Syracuse said “If somebody beats them, it’s an accident.  I know we can’t.”  “You can’t call off the tournament, Bobby Cremins of Georgia Tech said, “but they’d be better off keeping the games off TV—it will be carnage.”  “It’s ridiculous,” Pete Gillen of Xavier said.  “Nobody will come within 10 points of them in the NCAAs.”

Virtually everyone thought UNLV would be the first team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers to have an undefeated season.  UNLV started the tournament by beating Montana 99-65.  In the second round, UNLV beat Georgetown, led by 6’10” Alonzo Mourning and 7’2” Dikembe Mutombo, 62-54.  In the third round, UNLV beat 10th ranked Utah 83-66.  In the regional finals, UNLV beat 13th ranked Seton Hall 77-65.

UNLV entered the Final Four 34-0, with a 45 game winning streak.  Unfortunately for UNLV, their first opponent in the Final Four was Duke, the team UNLV beat by 30 points in the National Championship game the year before.  Duke, led by Christian Laettner, entered the game ranked sixth in the nation with a 30-7 record.  “Playing Duke is the worst thing that could have happened to us in the tournament,” Tarkanian said.  “I knew they would be tough the second time around.” 

Duke decided to double team UNLV star Larry Johnson and work the ball inside to Christian Laettner so he could get to the foul line.  Laettner scored 20 points for Duke in the first half, but UNLV still led 43-41 at halftime.

In the second half, UNLV extended its lead to 76-71 with just a few minutes to go.  Duke came back and tied the score 77-77 on a Thomas Hill three-point play.  With 12 seconds left, Christian Laettner hit the last two of his nine free throws to give Duke a 79-77 lead.   After the free throws, UNLV hurried the ball down the floor for a last shot.  A double-teamed Anderson Hunt shot and missed a desperation 25-footer, ending the game. 

UNLV’s point guard Greg Anthony said his team lost because “we didn’t get the breaks necessary to win.  I fouled out on a play where the official didn’t give me the call.  It was the first time I fouled out all year.  Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon probably played the worst games of their college careers.  That combination of events, plus the spirited play of the Blue Devils, knocked us out.”

Duke’s defense held Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon to a combined 19 points (less than half their average) on 8 of 20 shooting.  Christian Laettner scored 28 points and went 9 for 11 from the free throw stripe.

As it turns out, 1991 marked the second of three consecutive championship games for Duke and the first of two consecutive National Championships.  The 1992 Duke team is considered by many to be one of the best ever.  Yet, UNLV was so good, Duke’s victory is considered one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history.

Name            Pos Class  Pts    Reb   Ast
Larry Johnson    F   SR    22.7  10.9   3.0
Anderson Hunt    G   JR    17.2   1.6   2.7
Stacey Augmon    F   SR    16.5   7.3   3.6
Greg Anthony     G   JR    11.6   2.5   8.9
George Ackles    C   SR     8.2   5.7   0.8
Evric Gray       F   SO     6.8   3.7   1.4
Elmore Spencer   C   JR     6.4   4.0   1.2
Travis Bice      G   JR     4.7   0.6   0.7
Melvin Love     F/C  JR     2.5   1.8   0.0
H Waldman        G   FR     2.1   1.0   2.3


How would the 1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels do against the greatest teams of all time? 

The 1991 UNLV team was totally unstoppable.  Greg Anthony was a tremendous ball-handler, passer and defender at point guard.  Anderson Hunt and Stacey Augmon were both terrific outside shooters and great defenders.  Larry Johnson was an offensive force to be reckoned with inside.  Ackles and Elmore were solid inside defenders and shot blockers.  Say what you will about his recruiting violations, Jerry Tarkanian was a great coach.  This team may be the single best team of all time.

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