Gene Bartow has watched some of college basketball's best teams from an opposing bench. At Memphis State, he coached against -- and lost to -- the unbeaten UCLA team in the 1973 National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament final. Three years later, Bartow was at UCLA when the Bruins lost twice to undefeated Indiana.
But the team Bartow saw clobber Alabama-Birmingham, 109-68, last December could be the best he has seen in 35 years of coaching, he said. At the time, the Blazers were 3-0 and a little full of themselves. "The night we played them, they could have scored 200 points," Bartow recalled this week. "They did anything they wanted to."
That team, of course, is Nevada-Las Vegas. The Runnin' Rebels are top-ranked, unbeaten and looking for their place in college basketball history. Trying to become the first repeat national champion since UCLA in 1973, UNLV (30-0) begins defense of its title when it meets Montana on Friday in Tucson, Ariz.
The NCAA tournament begins tomorrow at four sites, including Cole Field House in College Park.
And consider this frightening thought: Most coaches agree that this season's UNLV team is better than the one that set a championship-game record for margin of victory when it blew out Duke by 30 points last season in Denver. The Runnin' Rebels have a 41-game winning streak and more importantly, an aura of invincibility about them.
"I think they're beatable, but I don't think anybody can beat them," said Princeton coach Pete Carril, whose team's much-ballyhooed early-season matchup turned into a 69-35 demolition of the Tigers. "They've got everything: rebounding, inside scorers who can hit the three, outside scorers who can go inside, defense, leadership and great coaching."
And a well-publicized reprieve from the NCAA. After getting hit with a one-year ban from the tournament, UNLV was allowed to begin its sentence next season after the team's seniors -- All-Americans Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson, as well as point guard Greg Anthony and George Ackles -- are gone. The players were reportedly considering a lawsuit against the NCAA if the Runnin' Rebels weren't allowed to defend their championship.
Now the obvious question: If UNLV is such an overwhelming overdog, why even play the tournament? The answer can be found in recent history, most notably in Georgetown's shocking 66-64 championship game loss to Villanova at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., six years ago. The Hoyas, led by Patrick Ewing and looking to repeat, were upset by a Wildcats team that shot an astounding 22 of 28 from the field.
"When you play in a one-game situation, anything can happen," said Georgetown coach John Thompson, whose Hoyas could meet UNLV on Sunday in Tucson, Ariz., if they get by Vanderbilt on Friday. "If Vegas played anyone in a seven-game series, they'd win. Invincibility is created by fans and the media. Any team that has won a national championship has talent."
Said North Carolina coach Dean Smith: "I don't think Vegas is a sure thing. College basketball doesn't work that way."
Said Carril: "It's the glorious uncertainties of the game. What happens if one of their big guys gets into foul trouble? Some nights the shots are falling. But they'd have to help you. If you play a perfect game, they'd still have to be off theirs."
What makes the Runnin' Rebels more difficult than most dominant teams is their flexibility in style. They can run it up or slow it down. They can fire away from the outside or pound the ball inside. They can play straight-up man-to-man or go to their famous "Amoeba" defense, a catchy name for a suffocating matchup zone.
"They can play you about any way you want and beat you at your own game," said Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote, whose Spartans lost to UNLV by 24 this season. "What makes them so good along with their talent is that Jerry gets them to play so hard. But he gets all his teams to play hard. He has a knack."
Jerry Tarkanian's coaching ability is the ingredient that often gets overlooked in this seemingly perfect recipe. Partly because of the talent -- six players could wind up in the National Basketball Association -- and partly because of his image, the man's sleepy-eyed demeanor belies his reputation as a defensive genius.
Tarkanian's running battles with the NCAA, including a 13-year lawsuit that was settled before last season's Final Four, have overshadowed a career record of 595-119. Tarkanian, who began the season a percentage point behind the legendary Clair Bee, has become the winningest coach in Division I history.
"I certainly think Jerry has done a marvelous job with this team, but he's done a great job with a lot of his teams," said Smith, whose program's image is in sharp contrast to UNLV's. "To me, the key for a coach is to get the players to do what he wants, and Jerry's teams have done that."