One-time wonders

UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian led his undefeated Runnin' Rebels to the Final Four in 1991, but they were knocked off by Christian Laettner and Duke.

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UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian led his undefeated Runnin' Rebels to the Final Four in 1991, but they were knocked off by Christian Laettner and Duke.

(1988-2002)

They came out of the college basketball wilderness with nicknames such as Runnin’ Rebels, Wildcats and Razorbacks.

They played defense with mottoes such as “40 minutes of hell” or used things such as an “amoeba zone” that seemed better suited for a college basketball laboratory than a college basketball court.

They emerged in a time when college basketball was changing.

The 3-point line was added in 1986, giving teams a new weapon to even the odds against those whose recruiting advantages were cemented by history.

College basketball wasn’t diluted by hordes of standout players staying for a season and then leaving for the NBA. Teams had chances to form chemistry. Freshmen had chances to adjust to the sport and the academics. Coaches such as Nolan Richardson and Jerry Tarkanian and Lute Olson had time to develop players and mold systems.

The shot clock, introduced in 1985-86, sped up the game.

Teams such as UNLV, Arkansas and Arizona ran and defended and muscled their way to national championships before falling back into what’s perceived as college basketball’s pecking order. They were joined by others who came close but couldn’t win.

It was one of the great periods in college basketball history because it wasn’t dominated by Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas and UCLA. There was parity in conferences and geography.

Greg Anthony and UNLV, with an image of outlaws perhaps cultivated by Tarkanian, were the first to smash through the blue bloods with a victory in the 1990 national championship game. They had been to the Final Four two times before, but hadn’t won the title.

The Runnin’ Rebels, from the “where’s that” Big West Conference, were physical, playing with their emotions on their sleeves.

Duke had the floor slap. UNLV, with its aggressive “amoeba zone” defense, had the metaphorical face slap.

“A lot of the kids weren’t kids that the elite programs wanted,” said Anthony, a former point guard who is a college basketball analyst for Turner Sports/CBS Sports. “They were transfers or kids that had issues with grades or their coaches had given up on them. You played with a chip on your shoulder.

“The way we played fit that. Kids from all over the country could identify with that.”

The Rebels flipped the script on zone defenses, sparked by Anthony and Stacey Augmon (who later played for the Hawks). With the exception of defenses used by a few teams such as Syracuse, most zones were considered passive and had the reputation of being used to try to neutralize athletic disadvantages.

UNLV’s was the opposite. Anthony had free reign to press and then drop back into the zone. They forced the other team to make mistakes and then capitalized on those errors with 3-pointers or fast-breaks.

“They used defense to generate offense,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said.

After the Rebels, the tried and true came through again with Duke winning back-to-back titles, followed by North Carolina taking the title in 1993.

And then came Richardson and his “40 minutes of hell.”

Kentucky dominated basketball in the SEC until Richardson and his Razorbacks pressed and ran their way to the national title in 1994 with a 76-72 win over (yawn) Duke. Like UNLV, the Razorbacks featured an aggressive defense that fueled its offense. It took full advantage of the 3-pointer, led by Scotty Thurman, and had players inside such as Corliss Williamson, who were as big as football players but truly were basketball players.

Also like the Rebels, the Razorbacks played with an edge built up by Richardson, who worked and fine-tuned his system until it was one of the most exciting in the game.

The Razorbacks harassed from the opening tip with the goal of wearing the other team down so that they had nothing left in the final 10 minutes. Running and pressing weren’t unique to Richardson or Tarkanian. Many teams tried it before then. But the Rebels and Razorbacks made it popular by virtue of their championships and the fact that they carried themselves as if no one wanted them to win.

“No question,” Thurman said. “We had to go out each and every day and prove to people, coaches and analysts. We had to prove we had a great team, great coaches, great players.

“We did that.”

UCLA and Kentucky won the next two titles, re-affirming that all was back to normal in the college basketball universe.

Arizona, which became known as “Point Guard U,” was next to upset the hierarchy. Olson had been building the program into a power with two Final Four appearances in 1988 and ’94, but the Wildcats couldn’t reach the crowning achievement.

That changed in 1997. Led by future Hawk Mike Bibby, the Wildcats defeated (yawn) Kentucky for the title, becoming the first team to knock off three No. 1 seeds in one tournament.

Like the Rebels and Razorbacks, the Wildcats couldn’t sustain the momentum. They made it to the championship game in 2001, where they were beaten by Duke, but haven’t advanced as far since.

There are many reasons.

The coaching stability the programs enjoyed as they rose, or re-rose, up the ranks, disappeared.

Tarkanian, amid rumors of numerous NCAA rules-related issues, left to coach the NBA’s Spurs in 1992. Richardson and Arkansas kept winning, finishing as runners-up to (yawn) UCLA in 1995, but that was as far as he could lead them. Richardson left in 2002 after butting heads with athletic director Frank Broyles. Olson led Arizona until resigning in 2008 with four Final Four appearances on his resume with the Wildcats and five overall.

“It’s no coincidence that the levels dropped when those guys left,” Bilas said.

Thurman, who is now an assistant coach at Arkansas, said rules changes eliminating hand-checking and a different academic environment also affected the programs. He also said society made things difficult.

“Kids started to change,” Thurman said. “… Kids that started to rest on the laurels of the past … coaching changes caused the style of play to be different. Expectations became different. That maybe caused the digression of the overall program.”

While they, along with other Final Four teams from that era such as Seton Hall and Utah, are trying to regain their status in college basketball, their legacies live on. Anthony draws a thread from UNLV’s defense to those played today by Kansas, Michigan State and Kentucky as examples of the Rebels’ influence.

“We did take pride in that we weren’t a prototypical blue-blood program,” he said. “We didn’t have the tradition and history of a lot of the elite programs at the time. We took pride in doing what we were able to do.”