Of course Nevada-Las Vegas can be beaten. This isn't the NCAA college basketball world series.
All it takes is one perfect game. Duke has the first opportunity against UNLV today in the semifinals of the Final Four in Indianapolis. Although they will deny it, North Carolina and Kansas already are fantasizing about playing UNLV in the championship game Monday.How do you stop a team that has won 45 games in a row by an average of 30 points, a team that seems destined to be the first since UCLA in 1973 to win back-to-back titles and the first since Indiana in 1976 to go undefeated?
Forgive Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski if he confers with Gen. H. Norman Schwartzkopf or pores over Albert Einstein's research or writes to Ann Landers.
It would take some unusual circumstances for Duke to upset UNLV:
- Through a quick petition, UCLA greats Bill Walton and Lew Alcindor regain the year of eligibility they lost when NCAA rules prevented freshmen from playing. They help the Blue Devils match up sizewise.
- UNLV's bench is suspect. Duke gets the Rebels in serious foul trouble. Coach Jerry Tarkanian is forced to play Wayne Newton at center.
- Tark forgets his towel, his wife, Lois, forgets her rosary beads and center Elmore Spencer forgets his mouthpiece, which he also often wears off the court (really).
- The NBA draft and Republican National Convention are inexplicably moved to today. That removes lottery picks Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon and aspiring conservative politician Greg Anthony.
And if those things don't happen, there are always the ghosts of the 1983 North Carolina State team and the 1985 Villanova team floating around the Hoosier Dome, ready to put a hex on the Rebels as they did to supposedly invincible Houston and Georgetown.
"To lose, UNLV must either have an off night or somebody will have to play like Villanova did against Georgetown," Long Beach State coach Seth Greenberg said. "Or if UNLV started playing not to lose instead of to win. But they create so much offense out of their defense with easy baskets. That takes them out of the mode of playing not to lose."
Tarkanian and his players also are battling great expectations. He gave them two days off after the West Regional victory over Seton Hall to help cure "mental fatigue."
"I do think there's a great deal of pressure on them, which puts them in a dangerous position," North Carolina coach Dean Smith said. "Duke has a great psychological advantage."
Coaches prefer the role of underdog. Other coaches say that mental preparation is one thing Krzyzewski does not have to worry about.
"He won't have to give any Knute Rockne speeches," Florida International coach Bob Weltlich said. "His kids will be extremely motivated. He can dissect last year's game and zero in on the Xs and Os."
How heavy will last year's 103-73 loss to UNLV - the most lopsided in Final Four history - weigh on the minds of the Duke players?
"Duke is not afraid; they're hungry for another chance," University of Miami coach Leonard Hamilton said. "Young basketball players are very cocky. They all think they can beat Michael Jordan."
Both Weltlich and Hamilton said Kansas has the best chance of derailing UNLV. The keys to an upset are meticulous ball movement to frustrate UNLV's ravenous man-to-man defense and a slower tempo to negate UNLV's offensive explosiveness.
"If you keep the floor spread, you deny them some pressure situations, some turnovers and fast-breaks," Hamilton said. "If you limit their possessions, they can't use their athletic ability as much."
Said Weltlich: "I like the fact that (Duke center) Christian Laettner can play out on the floor. He neutralized Shaquille O'Neal's inside game in the LSU game."
Running with UNLV is suicidal, as Arkansas showed in its 112-105 loss earlier this year. But the slowdown approach can backfire, too. Princeton tried it and lost, 69-35; Long Beach State tried it and lost by 20 in the Big West Tournament. UNLV beat a team with size in the middle when they beat Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo of Georgetown. They beat a team with crafty guards when they beat Terry Dehere and Oliver Taylor of Seton Hall.
"They have a weapon at each position," Hamilton said. "They have such balance at each end of the floor."
Some theorists, including Tarkanian, say Duke and the other Final Four teams can beat UNLV on the perimeter. If a team could get hot from 3-point range and UNLV went cold from outside, the opponent might have a chance.
"I'd give up the perimeter to Augmon and Anthony," CBS broadcaster Billy Packer said. "I'd tell them, `OK, I'm going to ignore you. Shoot them if you can.' Conversely, I would never allow Anderson Hunt to take a 3-pointer. I'd always have a guy on him, even if Larry Johnson had the ball inside."
Scoring guard Hunt has given some consistency to UNLV's once streaky shooting.