Their place in college basketball lore is secure, with a national title in one hand and an impossibly dominant trip to a Final Four in the other.
But where exactly do Jerry Tarkanian’s legendary UNLV teams of 1990 and ’91 fit in the annals of the sport’s history? Depends on whom you ask.
“You can’t even imagine a college basketball team being like that anymore,” said veteran basketball journalist and author Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports. “That’s the best team I’ve ever seen play college basketball.”
With or without the elusive 1991 national championship.
The legendary UNLV teams of yesteryear have been resurrected this week in wake of Gonzaga’s unbeaten march toward the Final Four. The Rebels made that same march in ’91 after claiming the ’90 national championship. Their 79-77 loss to eventual national champion Duke still stings all these years later.
But Wetzel, for one, doesn’t believe that one particular loss tarnishes the accomplishments of Tarkanian, Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Anderson Hunt, Greg Anthony and company.
“(Gonzaga) might be the best team of this era. But you don’t have seniors. You don’t have six NBA players on the team,” said Wetzel, who co-authored a book with Tarkanian in 2013. “UNLV would destroy Gonzaga. It’s just not fair. … It was a totally different era.”
The Rebels rolled to the 1990 national championship, returned their key players and won 45 consecutive games over the two seasons. Most weren’t particularly close.
All but one of their 34 victories during the 1990-91 campaign were by double digits. But it wasn’t the wins that captivated America.
It was how they won.
“It was like dunk, dunk, dunk,” Wetzel said. “It was the most exciting team you could ever put together. … It’s a run of teams, but when they won it (in 1990) and destroyed Duke, they say ‘Oh we’re coming back.’ It was like ‘Oh my goodness. What are they going to do?’ ”
Turns out they did exactly what Gonzaga did, crushing everyone en route to the Final Four. But the Bulldogs still have the chance to do what the Rebels couldn’t.
Seal the deal with a national championship and perfect season.
“If (UNLV) had won, it would have been an interesting debate. Whether it was them, or 1976 Indiana, or (Bill) Walton’s 1972 UCLA team or something like that. The conversations would have been fascinating,” said Michael DeCourcy, another veteran basketball scribe, now of the Sporting News, Big Ten Network and Fox Sports.
“But when they were unable to beat Duke, it simply became a question that I don’t think there’s any debate to,” he added. “They still reign as the best team ever to not win it.”
Kentucky’s 2014-15 team made it to the Final Four without a blemish, but that group wasn’t nearly as seasoned or dominant during the season. Patrick Ewing’s 1984-85 Georgetown squad was pretty spectacular, too, posting a 35-2 mark before losing to Villanova in the national championship.
But those Hoyas weren’t the Rebels. They didn’t have the swagger or star power that those particular Rebels had.
“What happened in ’91 has actually inflated the opinion of the ’90 team because people tend to melt them together. They were very similar teams,” said DeCourcy, whose covered 30 Final Fours and recently penned a feature story about the 1991 Duke team.
“The fact that they did what they did has enhanced the image of the ’90 team. The ’90 championship, you can’t ever take that away from them.”
On Saturday, Gonzaga will have its opportunity to do what those Rebels couldn’t. But their legend lives on in Las Vegas and beyond.
“They had a unique spirit,” Wetzel said. “Guys gave up money to play on that team. Talk about playing for the love of your school and the love of the game and each other. … I don’t know of a better example than that.”