INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Twenty-four years ago, UNLV arrived in Indianapolis for a coronation disguised as a Final Four.
The Runnin’ Rebels were a college basketball juggernaut. They hadn’t lost all season. In fact, they hadn’t lost for 45 straight games, a streak that started with a run in the previous season to a national championship.
UNLV, led by Jerry Tarkanian, the towel-chewing defensive genius, arrived in Indianapolis needing two wins to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976.
This week, Kentucky arrived in Indianapolis for a coronation disguised as a Final Four.
The Wildcats are a college basketball juggernaut. They haven’t lost all season.
Kentucky, led by John Calipari, a coach who has turned recruiting into an art form, arrived in Indianapolis needing two wins to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976.
The Wildcats face Wisconsin on Saturday in the national semifinals. That was the round in which UNLV’s undefeated dreams were dashed by Duke, a team the Runnin’ Rebels had beaten by 30 points in the championship game a year earlier. Duke, which plays Michigan State on Saturday, could get another chance to ruin a perfect run at the title, but that is looking way down a three-day road.
“I’ll never have a group of players like this again,” Tarkanian, who died on Feb. 11, said the night of the 79-77 loss to Duke, a result that stunned the sports world. “You only get a team like this once in your career. This was a very special group of kids.
“I’m just sick,” he said. “It meant so much to these kids. I’m just hurting inside.”
When the game ended, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had his own problem. He had to get his team to settle down after the upset because the Blue Devils still had a game Monday night for the national championship.
“I thought all week we had a chance but I wasn’t going to be Joe Namath and say anything like that,” Krzyzewski said 24 years ago. “I thought if we could fight for 40 minutes we could win, not knowing if the kids could handle it. UNLV plays with such ease and we play with so much emotion.”
UNLV won its games by an average of 26.7 points per game. Only two games were decided by less than 12 points, a 7-point win over Arkansas in a 1-vs.-2 matchup and an 8-point victory over Georgetown in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“I remember in practice, Coach K had us practicing five against seven, to get used to their speed and their quickness,” Grant Hill, a freshman starter on that Duke team, said Thursday in Indianapolis where he will serve as a game analyst for CBS. “We had a game plan, we’d been in a number of close games, we won some, some we didn’t, but we had that experience, and they had not been in many close games, so our thing was let’s hit them early, let them know we’re here, we’re going to play, and let’s just manage the game and keep it close, and if it’s close, the pressure is going to be all on them. That was our comfort zone, how we played all year.”
UNLV’s starting lineup included first-round draft picks Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony. It also had Anderson Hunt and George Ackles. All were upperclassmen.
Kentucky’s roster is so deep scuba gear is recommended. Nine outstanding underclassmen who have all committed to ignoring minutes for wins and it’s anybody’s guess how many of them will be first-round NBA draft picks. Eight of the nine players in the rotation are averaging between 5.6 and 11.0 points per game. Eight players have been Kentucky’s leading scorer in a game this season. The Wildcats did have three game decided by six or fewer points, but their average margin of victory was almost 21 points per game.
In the Midwest Regional semifinal, Kentucky destroyed West Virginia 78-39. Dominating was an understatement.
“They were what I thought they were,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “That’s the best defensive team I think that I’ve ever coached against. And when they’re making shots, there’s nobody going to beat them.”
Similar words were spoken 24 years earlier by Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson after the 1-2 matchup when he was asked what it would take to beat the Runnin’ Rebels.
“Play Detroit, the Lakers, one of those teams,” he said. “I’ve only been on the college level 11 years, but they are the best team I’ve ever seen.”
Hill said UNLV of 1991 and Kentucky of 2015 have some similarities, but there are differences.
“You look at the record and that conjures up memories of Vegas,” Hill said. “I don’t think (UNLV) had any close games. Kentucky has been in close games. And if you recall, UNLV had won the year before, killed Duke in the finals, and then they brought everybody back. They were older. They were seniors. They were upperclassmen. I think that’s one of the differences.
“I’ve heard people say they think Kentucky will lose. I think it’s 70-30 from what I’ve seen that people think Kentucky will win. But I don’t think anybody was thinking that Vegas would lose back in ’91. I mean, the only people who thought we would win were on our team. I know my parents didn’t think so.”
AP Sports Writer Dave Skretta in Indianapolis contributed to this report.