SAN DIEGO — Are the players on the University of Nevada Las Vegas basketball team really a group of decathletes who train by shooting jump shots?
Of course not, but maybe they should be.
When a group of college coaches were asked to discuss ninth-ranked UNLV, the conversation invariably centered on the athletic abilities of the Rebel players.
Usually, basketball coaches discuss zone defenses, offensive matchups and controlling the boards. But when the Rebels are the topic, speed and leaping ability come to mind first.
"UNLV has people who can accomplish things on the floor through sheer athletic ability," Cal State Long Beach Coach Ron Palmer said.
Said UC Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan: "They have such good athletes that they can take you out of everything you want to do. We scored 95 points against them in a game this season, and that was after they took us out of our offense."
The 49ers and Anteaters both lost two games to the Rebels this season. Those teams also lost to San Diego State, the UNLV's opponent in the opening round of the NCAA Western Regionals on Thursday at the Special Events Center in Salt Lake City.
Having played the Rebels and the Aztecs, what do coaches Mulligan, Palmer, Jerry Pimm of UC Santa Barbara and Bobby Paschal of the Southwestern Louisiana think about Thursday night's game? Do they believe the upstart Aztecs will be in over their heads against a very talented UNLV team that might be a sleeper in this year's tournament?
"San Diego State can play with their first five," Palmer said, "but I think UNLV has more great athletes."
Paschal: "Las Vegas is definitely a lot quicker, and they seemed to be more physically strong. But I really haven't followed the progress of the teams since we played them in December."
Pimm: "I think it will be a whale of a game. San Diego State is big and physical and can bang the boards with anybody, and Anthony Watson is a quality player. But overall, I don't think they're as deep as UNLV."
Mulligan: "San Diego State has enough good athletes so that it (less depth) might not hurt them, but they're going up against a very quick and talented team . . .
"I'm sure that when you talked to Tark (Rebel Coach Jerry Tarkanian), he had nothing positive to say about his team. But I told Tark last weekend that I thought this was his best team since 1977."
The Rebels went to the Final Four in 1977 before losing to North Carolina, 84-83, in the semifinals.
Since then, UNLV has won at least 20 games in seven of eight seasons. This season, the Rebels went 27-3, finished first in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. with a 17-1 mark and won the PCAA tournament.
"They are a deep team," Pimm said. "They don't go down when their reserves come in, and having those reserves enables their starters to play consistently hard for long periods of time. Sometimes the team even goes up when the reserves come in."
UNLV has only one star, 6-foot 8-inch senior center Richie Adams, the Most Valuable Player in the PCAA and in the PCAA tournament the past two seasons. Adams, who has a devastating hook-jump shot that he throws down at the basket from 12 to 15 feet, averaged 16 points and 7.9 rebounds to lead the team in both categories.
According to Tarkanian, Adams has played the last month with torn cartilage in his knee. Adams, who practices sparingly, will undergo arthroscopic surgery at the end of the season.
"Adams is the best ballplayer we saw all year," Palmer said.
About the only person capable of stopping Adams is Adams. He fouled out of 10 games.
"I'm going to try to take it to him and force him to foul," Aztec center Leonard Allen said. "I draw a lot of fouls and Adams fouls a lot . . . He's a quick player who plays a compatible game to mine.
"The important thing is I can't let him talk me out of my game. He's real good at playing head games."
Adams is joined on the front line by senior forward Frank (Spoon) James (8.2 points and 3.5 rebounds) and sophomore Armon Gilliam (11.8 and 6.9). James played with Aztec forward Andre Ross at San Jacinto Junior College in Texas from 1981-83.
The Rebel backcourt was Tarkanian's biggest concern coming into the season.
"Now, we have more maturity in the backcourt," he said. "Freddie Banks and Anthony Jones have come on to play well with us."
Banks, a sophomore point guard, is averaging 12.9 points and 5.9 assists. He has provided the Rebels with leadership and an outside shooting threat that has made teams think twice about zoning the Rebels.
"One of the things that makes this year's UNLV team tougher than last year's is that if you take their inside game away, they'll shoot it from the outside," Mulligan said.
Jones, a regular on the Georgetown team that finished second to North Carolina in the 1983 NCAA tournament, is averaging 13.2 points and 3.3 assists.
Senior forward Ed Catchings (8.8 points and 4.6 rebounds), freshman center Richard Robinson (5.3 points and 4.4 rebounds) and sophomore swingman Eldridge Hudson (4.8 points and 3.5 rebounds) spearhead the Rebel reserves.
The Rebels beat the Aztecs, 90-80, in a first-round NCAA tournament game on March 15, 1975. Eddie Owens and Ricky Sobers scored 21 points each to lead UNLV in a game played in Tempe, Ariz. Will Connelly led the Aztecs with 25 points. . . . UNLV leads the series with SDSU, 11-4. In the last meeting between the teams, the Aztecs beat the Rebels, 81-68, on Feb. 6, 1982 at the San Diego Sports Arena. . . . San Diego State will be making its first appearance in the NCAA tournament since March 13, 1976, when it lost to UCLA, 74-64, in Eugene, Ore. . . . Aztec guard Anthony Watson and center Leonard Allen were named to the Associated Press Honorable Mention All-American team on Monday.