clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Next Up - UNLV

Time: 5:15 (EST) || Venue: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas || Video: ESPN

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

NCAA Basketball: Maine at Duke
Dec 3, 2016; Durham, NC, USA; Maine Black Bears forward Andrew Fleming (0) shoots against Duke Blue Devils forward Chase Jeter (2) in the first half of their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. 
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Any conversation about Duke and UNLV automatically starts in 1990, picks up in 1991 and then wanders back to present day.

So let’s play along and go back to 1990.

We heard at the time, through a fairly reliable source, that before the Final Four started, Coach K felt it was his time.

It wasn’t something he could say obviously (assuming our source was correct), but Vegas made clear that it certainly wasn’t his time, winning by 30, 103-73.

It was an amazing game by Vegas. We remember Coach K saying afterwards that he wasn’t sure the press understood just how great UNLV had been.

It may or may not be connected, but doesn’t list the 1990 season in its database. It’s not even there, at least not for us. Maybe it works for you.

The Rebels got to the Final Four in 1991 undefeated and Duke made it back too, after getting pasted in the ACC Tournament by UNC, 93-72.

After the crushing 1990 loss, Coach K said he didn’t let the team watch the video because he thought it would be counterproductive.

If you watch it though you’ll see that Vegas basically beat Duke on two epic runs, and Bobby Hurley was sick. He actually had to leave the court to use the bathroom.

So yes Vegas crushed Duke, but things could have gone differently.

Hurley’s intestines weren’t an issue in the rematch. And Duke also had Grant Hill, who was a brilliant talent.

Then there was the new model Vegas. or rather a sleeker, refined version of a crushing machine.

Before the game, Stacey Augmon said he figured basically that Vegas would strip Duke a few times, get some dunks, run hard and Duke would give up.

From their point of view, that wasn’t unreasonable because that team had been great.

However UNLV had started to tighten up in the tournament. Vegas crushed Montana of course, no great surprise. The Rebels had a tough time with a pretty average Georgetown team, the #8 seed, winning by just eight. Utah lost by 17 and Seton Hall bowed out in the Finals by 12.

It wasn’t going to be as easy at looked like it might be and Duke was ready.

Publicly Coach K blew a lot of smoke at Vegas and said Duke would be lucky to stay in the game at all.

Privately though, he told his team after the UNC debacle that they would win the national championship.

And when it came to Vegas, if we could see they were tight, obviously he understood that Vegas was vulnerable to game pressure. So he told his team to disregard anything he said publicly about how great Vegas was.

It wasn’t just that Vegas was having a tough time with expectations and being acclaimed as one of the greatest teams of all time, which it was.

It was the pressure of being Vegas, or, more specifically, Tark’s Vegas.

That was during Tark’s War with the NCAA and there was massive public disapproval of the Rebels.

When the team first came into the Hoosier Dome 34 of the crowd actually hissed. It was much worse than boos. It wasn’t just dislike or fear; it was moral judgment. We’ve never heard anything like it before or since.

So all of that worked against Vegas and Duke had a phenomenal team too. Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill were the core of it, but Thomas Hill, Brian Davis, Greg Koubek, Billy McCaffrey, Antonio Lang and the rest were all really good too.

Coach K was right of course: the pressure was too much for Vegas. And in fairness to the Rebels, it must have been overwhelming. That team had massive swagger but everyone came at them. It can’t have been easy.

And when Duke stayed close - first Bobby Hurley’s huge three pointer late in the game, then on the free throw line, the undefeated Rebels didn’t know how to handle it.

When the clock hit zero, their players walked off the court clearly dazed. Larry Johnson, their best player, had balked at shooting an open three. They couldn’t believe what had just happened.

Things had changed. It was obvious at Duke’s hotel.

The old Duke program, the intimate thing where anyone could say hi to the players after the game, where everyone pretty much knew everyone - that was gone.

Big shots showed up for the celebration and stayed for years. It was an amazing celebration but sobering because while Duke finally broke through, some things were left behind.

And necessarily so.

The following year, Duke had to sneak Bobby Hurley out of a gym in an equipment bag because the atmosphere had become Beatlesque. Laettner ws perfectly willing to be an arrogant lightning rod, a pretty boy who could back it all up. He embarrassed everyone from Shaquille O’ Neal to Chris Webber.

The more obnoxious he seemed, the tougher he got. And it was great shade for everyone else.

Vegas meanwhile was about to part ways with Tarkanian, who left after the 1992 season under pressure. He spent some time at Fresno State and a bit with the Spurs before retiring.

Duke remained at or near the top of the basketball world while Vegas fell off rather sharply.

Since the epic 1991 rematch, Vegas has really had trouble remaining in the national conversation.

This past year, the team had a bit of a circus after Dave Rice was fired. Chris Beard took the job for 19 days before bolting for the Texas Tech job.

Things didn’t work out too badly though. The Rebels hired New Mexico’s State Marvin Menzies.

We saw his NMSU team in Cameron a few years ago and you can always tell a well-coached team and his certainly was.

He’s going to do well at Vegas but this is a transitional year. UNLV’s best win is probably over Western Kentucky; it has lost to South Alabama 76-68, Jamie Dixon’s TCU 63-59 and Hurley’s Arizona State team 97-73.

In its next five games, UNLV will see Duke, Oregon and Kansas.

Menzies has seven upperclassmen, two sophomores and six freshmen.

Menzies is going about nine deep. His key players are Tyrell Green (6-7 senior) and Jalen Poyser (6-4 sophomore). Poyser is averaging 17.5 ppg. Green is putting up 12.8 ppg and 6.3 rpg.

Christian Jones (6-7 senior) has only played in the last three games but has quickly emerged as a solid scorer for UNLV (14 ppg). He’s also averaging 7 rpg.

UNLV has some big guys - Cheickna Dembele (6-11) and Djordjije Sljivancanin (6-10) but they don’t get much time. It’s a smaller team.

That may not matter.

Menzies is a former Rick Pitino disciple and Pitino has no problem taking a smaller team and using a pressing, intense defense to compensate.

It won’t surprise us to see Menzies try that. Duke has Amile Jefferson, who is having a brilliant season, Marquise Bolden, who is working himself into game shape, and Chase Jeter. It’s a lot to overcome.

Jeter, who is a Vegas native and whose father Chris was on those great Vegas teams that Duke is inextricably linked to, has done a great job in the post while the other guys got healthy.

When Bolden is in game shape, he’ll give Duke a legitimate big man who can rebound, block shots and create his own. In brief flashes he’s been highly promising.

Tatum roared to life in the second half of the Florida game, dazzling onlookers including Kyrie Irving.

Duke’s backcourt has also been really strong with Grayson Allen, Frank Jackson and Luke Kennard.

During Duke’s snakebit part of the season, Kennard was superb. He’s been good enough to enter the conversation for National Player Of The Year.

Still, just as Duke upset UNLV in 1991 when the Rebels were supposed to be the first back-to-back champions since UCLA, Pitino’s Unforgettables at Kentucky came incredibly close to doing to Duke what Duke did to Vegas the year before.

That team was under talented and overachieving. That performance stands as perhaps the finest performance in a loss in NCAA tournament history

You can be sure that Menzies has heard many stories about it from Pitino and his associates. And you can be sure that he’s reminding his charges at UNLV that when a team sticks together and plays fanatically hard, it can overcome the greatest of odds.

He’ll tell them Duke did it.

He’ll tell them Kentucky very nearly did it.

And he’ll tell them that UNLV can do it too.

And if they believe him, if they stick together and play hard, they’ll have a shot.

If you're going to shop Amazon please start here and help DBR | Drop us a line