In the late 1980's it was Tark the Shark's show. Complete with chewed towels, flashing lights, blazing court antics, a Cinderella Final Four appearance in 1987, an NCAA championship in 1990 and an unbeaten regular season in 1991.
Then came probation and a fall from grace in 1993, when then-coach Jerry Tarkanian was forced to resign amid the controversy surrounding the recruitment of Lloyd Daniels. The subsequent investigation turned over other misdeeds that resulted in a four-year probation for the basketball program.
Bill Bayno, former U-Mass coach John Calipari's top assistant, was brought in to quell the turbulence, eventually leading the Rebels to three 20-win seasons.
Then, just a short time after its' probation was lifted, Nevada-Las Vegas found itself caught in another recruiting scandal, this time involving booster payments made in 1997 to then-recruit Lamar Odom. Odom, like Daniels, would never enroll at the school. The resulting mess would cost Bayno his job last December 11 -- the day that new NCAA sanctions were announced against the program.
Truly, the NCAA could have levied the death penalty against the Rebels, since the latest violations occurred within five years of first probation. Instead, the infractions committee chose another four-year probation, a ban of post-season play last year, and docked two scholarships each for this season and next. It cost the school over $200,000 in attorney's fees to investigate the NCAA allegations and to argue against a "two-year" death sentence.
Coming out of such a quagmire, UNLV sought to get someone with some drawing power to provide immediate lift from what will end up being a decade of turmoil. So they went hard after Rick Pitino. When that didn't work out – Pitino, of course eventually landed in Louisville -- they went for another highly successful (and more importantly, highly respected) coach in 61-year old Charlie Spoonhour.
Spoonhour, who cited burnout when he retired from Saint Louis University after the 1998-99 season, brings a .651 career winning percentage and a reputation for hard-nosed defense to a school that is used to high-octane offense. And he admits that it might take UNLV fans some time to get used to 'Spoonball', a moniker coined by Billikens fans that began flocking to games in droves as his charges, at least in their minds, continued to over-achieve. "It won't happen overnight," Spoonhour says of instilling his philosophy on a program in desperate need of stability. "We'll have some little bumps in the road. But I still have a little bit of dreamer in me. If you didn't dream a little, you're not going to get very much done."
"I just hope people have a little patience. I hope I'll have a little patience myself."
The ‘Spoonball' era started out nicely enough. Led by juniors Dalron Johnson and Marcus Banks, Nevada Las-Vegas opened with two handy home wins over Wisconsin (74-69) and Nicholls State (97-54) -- a game in which UNLV out-rebounded NSU 55-23.
However, it was a different story when the Rebels hit the road last Saturday against Spoonhour's old C-USA foe Cincinnati, losing the board battle by 10 and eventually succumbing 74-61. Senior swingman Lou Kelly was UNLV's most effective player, scoring a career-high 19 points while Johnson suffered through a miserable 2-16 shooting afternoon.
"First road games usually stink, and we were pretty stinky," Spoonhour said afterwards. "It was not the worst performance in the world, especially considering who we were playing, but there are things we need to improve upon, like getting more pressure on the perimeter and preventing easy passes to the post."
The Rebels, coming off a 16-13 campaign last season, hope that JuCo transfer Jamal Holden will develop into the main man in the middle, but so far sophomore Omari Pearson has been getting the starting call. Both figure to see time against the Huskies' bigger David Dixon -- Holden checks in at 220 pounds.
Johnson is UNLV's leading point-producer and rebounder from a season ago. Senior forward Chris Richardson, who was forced to sit out the first seven games of last season for unethical conduct in the wake of the NCAA investigation, has led the Rebels in rebounding two out of their first three games.
Rick Samek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
UNLV CL HT PTS REB WASHINGTON CL HT PTS REB Dalron Johnson JR 6-9 19.7 5.7 Doug Wrenn SO 6-8 17.0 6.3 Chris Richardson SR 6-6 7.7 6.3 Grant Leep SR 6-7 4.0 3.5 Omari Pearson SO 6-8 3.7 4.7 David Dixon SR 6-11 11.3 8.3 Marcus Banks JR 6-1 12.7 3.7 Curtis Allen SO 6-0 11.3 2.8 Vince Booker SR 6-1 4.0 2.3 Erroll Knight FR 6-7 12.8 2.8