The 1991 Runnin’ Rebels are the greatest college basketball team of all time. That’s right I said it. Re-read that line a couple times. Let it burn into your cranium. Now I know what everyone will say - they didn’t even win the title that year! They lost to Duke. Yes, I know that. But let’s cut through all the PC rules and regulations when it comes to picking the best team of all time and just come out honest and swinging.
For those who think the argument ends with the fact they didn’t win. Just stop it. That’s like saying the 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack’s victory over Phi Slamma Jamma meant they were better. That’s the beauty of college basketball and its blemish. You only have to beat a team once to win. This isn’t the NBA where you need to be consistent in a best of seven series.
Hell, I’ll even go on record and say the 1990 UNLV squad belongs in the top 10 of all time teams. I call this a fact that few can argue, yet there are few that will even take on that argument because of all the variables at play with the hated Runnin’ Rebels. But the 1990 team is for another article at another time. Today is about the 1991 team.
Here’s an important piece of the UNLV puzzle. Everyone, and I mean everyone, hated UNLV. People can try to deny this, but UNLV was like the Yankees in baseball, the Notre Dame of college football and the Mike Tyson of boxing. Why, you might ask? Because they were vicious and explosive, while destroying everyone by an average of 26.7 points. It’s a record that still stands 5th all time. During the UNLV golden age they won an impressive 45 games straight when you include their final 11 games of the 1990 championship season. Say what you want about level of competition, but while the Big West wasn’t the Pac-10 or ACC, think of Memphis in conference USA. Some teams were ranked. Most weren’t that great. But unlike Conference USA with its marginal prospects, the Big West had several solid pro prospects in Randy Brown, Cedric Ceballos, Lucious Harris and Byron Russell. To make things interesting Coach Jerry Tarkanian always scheduled a tough out of conference schedule that, in 1991, included Arkansas (2), Michigan State (4), and Louisville (23), all top 25 opponents at the time.
Even the Late John Wooden couldn’t stand the idea that the 1991 Rebels were better than any of his teams. When talk began to hit the Wizard of Westwood ear’s, the typically humble and reserved Wooden quickly spoke that his UCLA teams were better than UNLV, but also quickly recanted in a separate interview proclaiming that 1991 UNLV is up there and no college basketball team is the best ever.
Mutual respected rivals (L to R) Tark & Wooden
Why Wooden changed his verbage is unknown, but I’m sure some of it had to do with Jerry Tarkanian. Wooden teams were dominant with NBA greats Bill Walton and Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). How could he not take up for what he had built? The Tarkanian connection began before the Shark’s coaching career at UNLV when, at Long Beach State, Tark’s growing program was continually investigated by the NCAA. Tarkanian grew tired of the NCAA’s accusations and their blatant blind eyes to obvious rule breaking by UCLA’s boaster Sam Gilbert. From there the gauntlet was thrown, but not before former UCLA ball player Bill Walton wrote in his 1978 book On the Road with the Portland Trail Blazers, “UCLA players were so well taken care of — far beyond the ground rules of the NCAA — that even players from poor backgrounds never left UCLA prematurely (for pro basketball) during John Wooden’s championship years. ” Walton went on to write, “If the UCLA teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s were subjected to the kind of scrutiny Jerry Tarkanian and his players have been, UCLA would probably have to forfeit about eight national championships and be on probation for the next 100 years. “
Amazingly these same sports writers who have jumped on Tarkanian throughout his coaching career, especially after his team lost to Duke in 1991, either haven’t or only lightly brushed the Sam Gilbert connection to Wooden’s legacy. We may never get the full story because the media creates and destroys what it wants not what it is. The protagonist/antagonist characters are so striking you would have to be blind not to see. Coach Wooden (good) is to this day considered a saint with not a single corrupt bone in his body, while Coach Tarkanian (bad) is viewed as having low morals with little regard for authority. Why would anyone want to research someone like Wooden who has been built up saintly? As journalists it’s just easier to say that bad guys wear black and good guys wear white when in truth the real intentions of men are somewhere in the middle called the grey area. The 1991 Rebels were the bad guys and they loved every minute of their role. While they knew they weren’t thugs or convicts they played with swagger and gave menacing stares after destroying the rim. Simply put, most opponents were already beat before the game even started.
1991 UNLV Roll Call: The Starters
Larry Johnson: There may be no greater injustice in college basketball history than Larry Johnson. Why? Because many people forget or simply ignore the plain truth - LJ kicked everyone’s ass on the court. He was one of the strongest players in the post with a 36 + vertical, a post-up game, face-up game, ball handling and 3-point range. The guy had the power of a post player with the shooting touch of a perimeter man. If this two-time all American honors and 1991 Wooden Award winner isn’t in your list of top 20 college players of all time, chances are you need to get some old film and watch pure dominance at work.
Stacey Augmon: To say that Augmon should be ranked among the best defensive players in college basketball history is not an idle boast. Plastic Man, with his elastic arms and legs, made it a nightmare for offensive players in an age where defensive player like Shane Battier take acting classes to engage in flopping to gain foul trouble on his match-up. Augmon used good ole fashioned foot speed and length to disrupt positions 1-through-3. Equally impressive was Augmon’s ability to finish in transition. Armed with length, leaping ability and creativity, Augmon usually converted difficult shots with ease.
Greg Anthony: He was quite simply the engine that ran the rebels and quite possibly the most hated Rebel. Why? Because as a person he was highly intelligent, republican, business minded and was extremely well spoken in interviews. Anthony was a confident player, tough as nails. A defensive ball hawk and who ran the UNLV offense as smooth as a Cadillac. And in game situations, he had no qualms telling you how he felt. Although not on the trash-talking level of today’s college players, Anthony was clearly the kind of player that make you regret any trash-talking you dished out.
Anderson Hunt: He was one of the most dangerous players on the team. If you doubled Larry Johnson in the post or tried to collapse the driving lanes of Augmon or Anthony, you paid the price. Hunt had a sweet shooting stroke, solid perimeter defense and above average athleticism to finish above the rim. Depending on how you wanted to defend UNLV, Hunt could have 15 or 30 points. Defensively, his foot speed was tremendous, which was crucial for disrupting passing lanes in UNLV’s Amoeba Defense.
George Ackles: The most forgotten of all the members of the 1991 UNLV team, Ackles played the 1989 season for UNLV after transferring from junior college. Before the 1990 season Ackles injured his wrist in a pickup game and redshirted. Why many fans could not forget David Butler, coaches proclaimed that Ackles, not Butler, was the better fit despite not being much of a scorer. Ackles was an extremely athletic player who often finished around the basket with authority. Defensively, Ackles was intimidating, often blocking shots out of position and using his length to grab rebounds. If there was a weakness to Ackles, other than his lack of offensive ability, it was his foul trouble.
Elmore Spencer: How many teams have a first round pick at the center position on the bench? Spencer was considered by many to be a top 25 high school player. After a freshman season at Georgia Spencer transferred to Connors State Junior College. The left-hander often backed up Ackles or Larry Johnson depending on foul trouble and opposing team personnel. Spencer was armed with a soft touch around the basket, effective rebounding and solid passing with true center size.
Evric Gray: Great college player. Good body strength and rebounder. Solid scorer; a starter at any other school.
H Waldman: Smart player with solid 3-point shot and quality passing.
Travis Bice: Fan favorite with great perimeter shooting and willing passer with surprising toughness.
Melvin Love: Better player than stats indicate; effective rebounder with below average feel for the game.
Chris Jeter: Toughest player on the team. If you’re in a war you want him in the foxhole with you.
Bobby Joyce: Great junior college player. Much was expected of him, but he never seemed to get going.
Dave Rice: (UNLV’s new head coach): Fundamentally sound player who received minor minutes.
It would easy for people to say I’m not seeing the big picture when talking about this team. After all, in the big scheme of things they didn’t win. But what makes them different than, say, ‘83 Houston, ‘85 Georgetown or ‘99 Duke? It’s simple those teams are mentioned in passing - never with the reverence of ‘91 UNLV. 1983 Houston and ‘85 Georgetown were defeated by complete underdogs that many didn’t even peg as final fours participants. Those teams entered the tournament with double digit loses. With ‘99 Duke they weren’t even ranked as the number one team in the country. In fact, the team that beat them (Connecticut) spent more time on the court as the #1 team in comparison to Duke. With 1991 UNLV there was absolutely no disputing it. They were the number one team that entire season. Sure, Duke was a dangerous team, but pre-season, everyone had them pegged as top 3 team. Not #1.
If you’re a basketball nut like me, you saw HBO’s UNLV documentary. In it, Duke’s head coach confesses that the 1990 team were exceptional and destroyed his team. What else could he say? A 30-point blowout doesn’t usually have much pride or excuses associated with it. He then went on to say in ‘91 Duke was the better team. Huh? You call winning a game by 2-points better? You call holding two All-American’s in Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon to a combined 16 points better? You call getting a bogus and now famous Duke charging call that resulted in UNLV Greg Anthony’s foul disqualification better? You call a jump shooting team getting to the free throw line 23 times to a post oriented team’s 15 times better? You call a last second shot that hits the backboard and grazes the rim better? An average person they would call all of this “better”, but any college basketball coach or any real fan who knows the game would call that “luck”.