To a man, the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. coaches agreed. This was the season. If ever there was a chance for a team other than Nevada Las Vegas to win the conference championship, this was it.
The Runnin' Rebels returned just four players from last year's Final Four team, and even Coach Jerry Tarkanian had serious doubts about the state of the Las Vegas dynasty. Heck, he was even considering taking the runnin' out of the Rebels.
"We might not fast break much," Tarkanian said before the season. "We're still moving guys all around. I don't know what we're doing."
What the Rebels are doing, of course, is winning. Thursday night's 99-77 victory over UC Irvine, in front of 5,000 in the Bren Center, lifted their record to 20-1. And that's about par for this point in the season. It's the third time in four years UNLV has started the season 20-1.
The Rebels (9-1 in the PCAA) have won nine in a row since their only loss, including a 92-72 romp over Providence and a 59-58 win over Temple, which was ranked No. 3 at the time. UC Santa Barbara beat UNLV, 62-60, Jan. 7 in Las Vegas' Thomas & Mack Center, and Irvine (10-9, 5-5) had the misfortune of coming into town two days later. The Rebels buried the Anteaters that night, 103-68.
Thursday night wasn't much different. The names of the game's stars may have changed, but the color of their uniforms certainly didn't.
Guard Karl (Boobie) James made 10 of 15 field-goal attempts to score a career-high 26 points for UNLV. Center Anthony Todd made 5 of 5 field goals to score 13. And the Rebels, who were shooting 69% from the free-throw line, made 25 of 26 on this night.
Center Wayne Engelstad led Irvine with 25 points, but made just 10 of 26 shot from the field. Irvine, having problems with UNLV's half-court trap, shot just 38% from the floor for the game.
The No. 2-ranked Rebels got off to a slow start, but, despite 28 turnovers, were in complete charge after going ahead by 7 points with four minutes left in the first half.
"We don't have a true guard on this team so we turn the ball over way too much," Tarkanian said. "But we're doing a lot of other things pretty good to overcome it. We're shooting pretty well, and this team plays harder than any other team we've ever had."
When the Rebel coach was informed that top-ranked Arizona had lost Thursday night, he smiled and shook his head.
"If we're No. 1, well, that would be incredible," he said. "This year has been a miracle so far. We do some things really poorly, but we manage to win. When you look at the ingredients you need to win, like scoring from your post players and a play-making guard, we don't have them.
"At the beginning of this year, I didn't thing we'd be No. 1 in our neighborhood."
The only difference between this squad and past Rebel teams is they aren't racking up as many 30-point routs. But they're still winning the big ones against nationally ranked opponents and conference contenders and the little ones, too.
"Some people, lay people, might say Tark isn't that great of a coach, that he's always got great players," Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan said, "but he wins with them and lots of guys have great players and don't win."
Mulligan thinks Tarkanian's secret to success is in his ability to handle players. He demands they give 100% on defense, but is willing to overlook some offensive indiscretions. If you don't play defense, you don't play for Tarkanian. But if you free lance a little on offense, he won't pull you out of the game.
"Look at what he's done this year," Mulligan said. "Sure, he's got some great athletes, but they aren't all great basketball players. But they're still a machine out there. I mean you don't even know who these guys are . . . they all look the same, they're all the same size and they all jump the same, too."
And, contrary to early-season opinion, they win the same, too.
"We definitely felt like we had something to prove," said freshman Stacey Augmon, who scored 12 points and had 5 rebounds. "We wanted to prove something to the people at home who said it was a rebuilding year, and the whole nation."
Forward Jarvis Basnight, who is one of two proven returning starters along with Gerald Paddio, said the 1987-88 Rebels have worked for everything they have achieved.
"I think coach figured we would be about 11-10 now," said Basnight, who had 13 points and 8 rebounds. "We had a whole bunch of new guys and didn't know what to expect. But we've had more intense practices than ever before."
Basnight wasn't exactly overjoyed with the thought of being No. 1.
"It's kinda scary," he said. "I'd rather be No. 2 until the last game of the season and then be No. 1."