During the NCAA tournament back in 1991, UNLV poured in 99 points in its first-round victory over Montana in Tucson, Ariz. Across the country that same weekend in Syracuse, N.Y., Princeton held Villanova to only 50 points in a narrow 50-48 defeat.
That season, no two teams had more contrasting styles than Princeton and Nevada-Las Vegas. Things have changed.
The 1998 UNLV basketball team is only a shadow of its run-and-gun predecessor of the late 1980s and early 1990s. In their first NCAA tournament appearance since the Final Four in 1991, this year's Rebels qualified on the strength of their defense, just as Princeton (26-1, 14-0 Ivy League) earned the Ivy League's automatic bid through its own defensive prowess.
As incredible as UNLV's surprise run through the Western Athletic Conference Tournament last week was, the manner in which it won was equally impressive. UNLV (20-12 overall, 7-7 WAC) held two top-20 teams, Utah and New Mexico, to only 51 points apiece.
The Rebels played an effective zone defense that held the Utes and the Lobos to a combined 8 for 48 from behind the arc, shooting performance strikingly reminiscent of No. 8 Princeton's 4 for 26 showing from three-point land in December's close loss to No. 1 North Carolina.
Winners of its last six, UNLV has peaked at just the right time.
"I was surprised to see UNLV as a (No.) 12 seed," senior guard Mitch Henderson said. "I thought they were a lot better than that. It's tough to play a hot team. But then again, we've won 19 in a row."
The more conservative Rebels are playing solid defense and are not scoring with the abundance of past UNLV teams. Witness their 69.8 points per game on offense, only three points better than Princeton.
Still the same
Make no mistake though, the Rebels still like to get out and run, and have good athletes at all five positions. The Rebels, like Princeton, are not a particularly tall team. UNLV goes 6 feet, nine inches, 6- 8 and 6-6 across the front line.
Princeton's ability to contain UNLV's fast break and to control the tempo of the game against UNLV's constant pressure will probably determine the outcome.
"It's a good appeal for the committee because our styles are so different," senior center Steve Goodrich said. "They play really fast and we will try to slow it down. Their eyes lit up when they saw Princeton as their opponent."
"We just go out and play," head coach Bill Carmody said. "We'll still play the way we play, no matter their personnel or style."
The Rebels have finally found their identity after three months of turmoil. Former starting center, senior Keon Clark, and starting forward, junior Kevin Simmons were each suspended by the NCAA for 11 and 14 games respectively at the start of the season for taking a trip to Florida last spring courtesy of a sports agency.
A strong preseason candidate for the Naismith College Player of the Year and the John R. Wooden Award, Clark only returned for 10 games.
He was again suspended indefinitely Feb. 9, this time for violating team rules and athletic department policy. It was announced Feb. 24 that he would not return this season.
With Clark now preparing for the NBA, freshman center Kaspars Kambala has been thrust into the spotlight. Kambala has responded. He currently leads the team in rebounding and is second in scoring. Although no player has started every game – Princeton's five starters have started all 27 games – UNLV has finally found some chemistry.
Joining Kambala and Simmons in the starting lineup are senior forward Tyrone Nesby, junior guard Brian Keefe and sophomore guard Mark Dickel.
The Rebels do not rely on one scorer to carry the offensive load. Like the Tigers, three of the starting five average in double figures. Nesby leads the way at 15.7 ppg, with Kambala and Simmons following at 11.9 and 11.4 respectively.
All three big men also average more rebounds than Princeton's top man, junior forward Gabe Lewullis. Limiting the points and rebounds of these three will be crucial for the Tigers' success.
UNLV head coach Bill Banyo and his players understand the challenge ahead of them. They hope to have the same success with their zone defense against the Tigers that they did in the WAC tournament, and realize that a fast game is not possible.
"We have to value every possession the way they do," Dickel said in a Las Vegas Sun story yesterday. "Obviously, they pose problems for everyone they play with their style. But we have to try to pose some problems for them."
As for the Tigers, they know their new role as a favorite will not make their task in the NCAA tournament any easier.
"If we were going to a holiday classic with these four teams (including Michigan St. and E. Michigan), we might lose both games," Henderson said. "We have our work cut out for us."