UNLV Basketball’s Perfect 1991 Regular Season in Four Numbers
The Runnin’ Rebels of lore were great in a number of ways.
Our resident Mountain West history buff dives into one of the best college basketball teams ever.
So we’ve made it to March. And as I look around the college basketball landscape, I see failure and defeats everywhere. Marred records from the Sun Belt, to the American East, to the West Coast Conference, and everywhere in between. Not an undefeated squad to be found. What’s up?
Simple attrition I suppose. That and the fact that perfect regular seasons are exceedingly rare in college basketball. Kentucky did it in 2015. Wichita State in 2014. Before that St. Joseph’s in 2004.
But if you really want to talk perfection and dominance, it’s gotta be the 1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels.
On March 2, 1991, the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels—coached by perennial NCAA-tormentor Jerry Tarkanian and led by future NBA first rounders Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, and Greg Anthony—finished off a perfect regular season.
Almost everything to say about this team has been said. Only Michigan’s Fab Five in recent memory has captivated the nation like the Rebels did. Heck, I was a kid living in Canada and I couldn’t get enough of Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon, Anderson Hunt, and Larry Johnson (and I guess we can toss George Ackles in there too).
But in looking back at UNLV’s historic season, I’m overwhelmed by one pervading sentiment: 1991 was such a different time in college sports. To understand just how different it was, consider the following four numbers.
1 (one phone call)
Until 48 hours before the season tipped off, UNLV was ineligible to defend its National title. The NCAA had announced in August 1990 that due to recruiting violations committed by Tarkanian and UNLV beginning in 1977 (yes, ’77), the school would be banned from the 1991 NCAA Championship.
Here’s what had happened.
First LJ (who wasn’t called that yet) picked Vegas. Larry Johnson, a 6’7 monster of a power forward, with a terrorizing combination of skill and on-the-court fury, picked UNLV as his landing spot for the ’89-90 season after a stint at Odessa College. Johnson joined an already loaded squad. Augmon, Anderson, and Hunt had led UNLV to the Elite Eight the year before.
Everything came together perfectly. The team blitzed through the regular season. There were a few hiccups sure, but nothing that hadn’t been ironed out for the 1990 NCAA Tournament.
There the Rebels handled Arkansas-Little Rock, Ohio State, and Ball State, before crushing the dreams of Bo Kimble and Loyola Marymount. Georgia Tech, with Kenny Anderson and Dennis Scott, gave UNLV a game in the Final Four, but UNLV pulled out a 90-81 victory.
Then UNLV smashed Duke in the NCAA Championship game. 103-73. The largest margin of victory ever.
And the big four—Anderson, Augmon, Hunt, and Johnson—were all coming back.
Then the NCAA handed down its verdict. No post season for the Rebels. No title defense.
What to do? If ever there has been a coach unintimidated by the NCAA it was Jerry Tarkanian. By this point in his career he had already taken the NCAA all the way to the Supreme Court. He had made his famous “The NCAA was so mad at Kentucky they gave Cleveland State two more years of probation” quip.
Regardless though, the real possibility of the Rebels putting out on the floor one of the greatest teams of all time in the 1991 regular season, and then not having the chance to go to the tournament loomed.
That is until the NCAA blinked.
On November 29, 1990, Jerry Tarkanian—who was already in Canada for the team’s opening game—received a phone call from UNLV President Robert Maxon. Maxon informed Tarkanian that the NCAA had heard UNLV’s appeal and offered a choice: UNLV could play out the ’90-91 season in its entirety (tournament and all) if the school agreed to a post-season and television ban for ’91-92. And Tarkanian had to promise to “pursue no further legal action” against the NCAA.
Sure. That would work.
$75,000 (seventy-five thousand dollars)
The rodeo came to Las Vegas and the Thomas & Mack Arena, so UNLV had to find somewhere else to start the season. How about Canada?
For a guarantee of $75,000, UNLV played its season opener at B.C. Place in Vancouver, Canada on December 1, 1990. The opponent: Alabama-Birmingham. It was a strange affair. I should know; I was there, ball-boying my way as close the Rebels as possible.
The BC Hoopfest ‘90 was a noble attempt to give basketball a breath of air before hockey season took over. The UNLV-UAB contest capped off a day of basketball—a girl’s game at 12:15, a boy’s game at 2:15, a matchup between the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria at 4:30, and then finally UNLV.
UNLV had its way with UAB. As 7,963 Canadians looked on (in a stadium that could seat 60,000), the Rebels rolled. Tark played everyone. UAB did the best it could. Stacey Augmon, who had set off an impromptu autograph mob scene on the campus of UBC the night before, opened the game with a thunderous dunk. Larry Johnson scored 26. So the back-on title defense began.
2 (two missed punches)
The wins came one after another. The margins were ridiculous. UNLV beat in-state rival Nevada by 50. Then Michigan State by 20. Florida State by 32. After a 113 to 64 humiliation of Fresno State, UNLV stood at 19-0.
Finally it was time for a challenge.
On February 10, #1 UNLV traveled to Fayetteville to face #2 Arkansas. The largest crowd in the history of Barnhill Arena showed up to do their Woo Pig Sooieing worst. Todd Day, Oliver Miller, and Lee Mayberry anchored the Arkansas squad.
Arkansas raced out to an early lead. The Hogs even held the halftime lead. But Augmon (31 points), Hunt (26) and Johnson (25) were too much.
Things got interesting with 2:27 to go when Day and Johnson got tangled up under the basket. Like everything about UNLV in ’91, what transpired next was memorable. Rather than no-really-hold-me-back shoving match, Johnson tried a quick jab at Day. Day responded with a feeble, flailing punch of his own. “I’ll see you after the game,” Johnson threatened as the referees pulled the players apart. Both were ejected.
But the take away: UNLV won, 112-105. And it wasn’t really that close. Yes, the Rebels’ intensity occasionally boiled over, but mostly Tark’s guys stuck to trash talking and winning. Always winning.
4,032 (four thousand thirty two fans)
“We haven’t talked about it once,” Tarkanian told the Los Angeles Times when it was all over. “We’ve never discussed going undefeated.”
The final game on the regular season slate was Cal State Fullerton—a school with almost nothing to brag about in the basketball department (Leon Wood on the ’84 Olympic squad?) and playing out the string on another losing Big West season on March 2, 1991.
For the game, Fullerton nearly doubled its average attendance. 4,032 fans showed up to see the Rebels cruise to a 104-83 win. The Rebels never even rolled out their crippling press for the final contest of the regular season. No need.
Thus concluded UNLV’s perfect regular season. The team had only trailed for 38 minutes during the entire campaign. Larry Johnson shot 66% from the floor for the season. UNLV as a squad led the Big West in almost every countable category. And all five UNLV starters would be recognized as All-Americans (Augmon and Johnson as First Teamers; the rest as Honorable Mentions) for their efforts.
But still, UNLV’s last game of a perfect season was played in a gym. Not an arena – it was a bleachers and lines all over the floor gymnasium. The game was not televised. Can we imagine a recent Duke or Kansas or Kentucky team finishing off a regular season in such a humble circumstances? Not really. It was, as I’m now old enough to say, different times.