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Five-star review

Nevada Las Vegas is a player again, thanks to Lon Kruger, but these Runnin' Rebels are quite different from those of the Tarkanian era

March 21, 2007|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — The Stardust hotel, imploded last week, is a pile of rubble but "Titanic, the Exhibition," is back "by popular demand" at the Tropicana.

Miami Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter may also be sinking fast after allegedly punching a Cincinnati Bengal over blackjack at the Palms.

Danny Gans is playing the Mirage; David Hasselhoff is starring down the Strip in "The Producers."

And, perhaps the biggest news, Nevada Las Vegas basketball has reunited and is taking its act to St. Louis.

There was a time when the "Runnin' Rebels" were as big as anything in Vegas -- a bunch of show stoppers.

Yet, UNLV endured a not-so-sweet 16 years between NCAA tournament victories before breaking new ground last weekend with victories against Georgia Tech and Wisconsin.

UNLV plays Oregon on Friday night in a Midwest Regional semifinal.

Don't look now, but only four more victories to the national title.

"I like this team, I like them a lot," said former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian, who still lives in town. "When they were picked to finish sixth in the league I said, 'That's crazy, they're a lot better than that.' This team is playing as well as it can play."

UNLV basketball is back, but it's nothing like before -- how could it be?

Gone are days when Tarkanian coached, dined nightly at Piero's, fended off NCAA inquiries, fielded high-octane teams and the games at the Thomas & Mack Center had the ambience of heavyweight title fights.

People went to see and to be seen, adorned in the appropriate attire.

But, as the Las Vegas Sun noted in February: "Hard hats have replaced high heels on Gucci row."

UNLV basketball is back but these are not your Larry Johnson Grandmama's Rebels.

Those UNLV teams produced future NBA stars, whirlwind drama, and one program-walloping photo of three players with Richard "the Fixer" Perry in a hot tub.

Those UNLV teams featured Johnson, Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon, Anderson Hunt and plenty of rockets red glare.

"Everybody thought of them as big movie star-type people," said Curtis Terry, a key contributor to this year's UNLV team. "They were the biggest show in town. They went out and put on a show."

This team got to 30-6 quietly. It fought its way up virtually ignored, after being picked to finish in the sock drawer of the Mountain West Conference.

These Rebels are led by a third-year coach, Lon Kruger, who is as much heat deflector as Tarkanian was a lightning rod.

Kruger is the sixth UNLV coach since the besieged Tarkanian left the school in 1992 after 19 years, 509 wins and four Final Four trips.

It all went sour for UNLV, the NCAA came down with probation and the music stopped.

Tarkanian was followed by Rollie Massimino, Tim Grgurich, Bill Bayno, Max Good and Charlie Spoonhour.

With last week's NCAA win, Kruger became the first UNLV coach other than Tarkanian to win an NCAA tournament game; Tarkanian won 30.

Kruger is a college coach at heart, a man who took Kansas State, Florida and Illinois to the NCAA tournament before a career detour to the NBA. He detected a melancholy when he took over in Las Vegas.

"The crowds here were interesting," Kruger said. "I think they had been disappointed several times and maybe there was a reluctance of being hurt again. Having hopes built up and dashed."

UNLV got back with lower-profile players and a lot of elbow grease.

These Rebels don't have a starter taller than 6 feet 8. They are led by five seniors. They have a bruising "power guard" in Wendell White, from Redondo Union High, who has forged on this year despite breaking his jaw and, more recently, playing through a painful rib injury.

They boast a tough sophomore guard in Wink Adams, and added the missing piece when Kevin Kruger, the coach's son, was allowed under a since-rescinded NCAA rule to transfer from Arizona State without sitting out a year.

It is a team of unselfishness and doggedness. White and Adams average 14 points and Kruger adds 13 per game. Shot-blocker Joel Anthony was the conference's defensive player of the year.

These guys are hardly rebel-rousers. On a trip home from Hawaii in December, a Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant complimented Lon Kruger for his players' in-flight behavior.

The stars on this year's team were pups when UNLV won the 1990 national title and then went 34-0 the next year before losing to Duke in a national semifinal.

Yet, it's amazing what a hold those old Rebels still have.

Adams says he distinctly remembers, as a kid, watching UNLV beat Duke to win the title in 1990.

"To me, one of the best teams ever," Adams said. "They beat Duke by 30 points. I really remember that. That's the reason I came here. When I got my first letter from UNLV, this is where I was coming. To be part of this tradition, and being in the Sweet 16, and wearing a UNLV jersey, is a dream come true."

White was a Larry Johnson fan from the time he saw the former UNLV star reprise his commercial role of "Grandmama" on the television show "Family Matters."

"He had that gold tooth," White said.

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