There is no middle ground with Jerry Tarkanian.

The Nevada-Las Vegas basketball coach is one of those men everybody has an opinion about and it is almost always one of extreme.You either love him or you don't.

He is the winningest active coach by percentage and his .826 mark over 27 years is just points behind Clair Bee for the top spot all-time.

His 11-year legal battle with the NCAA was decided last month by the Supreme Court - a 5-4 decision against Tarkanian.

He has a roster of friends that rivals Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, who is on Tarkanian's list. He also has a list of critics and detractors that might just stretch the length of the famed strip in his hometown.

Even in describing his current team, Tarkanian jumps right to an extreme.

"This is the youngest team in NCAA history that's been ranked high," Tarkanian said last week as he munched on chicken wings at his own restaurant, Tarkanian's Celebrity Sports Club, which dominates Ruunin' Rebel Plaza, a small shopping center right across the street from campus.

There is no way to prove or disprove Tarkanian's claim about his team.

Nine of the 16 players on the roster and six of the first eight had never appeared in a college game before the season and they have been ranked each week this season, getting as high as eighth.

There is plenty of proof, however, of how his fellow coaches feel about him.

The walls of the restaurant are full of signed pictures of prominent college coaches as well as one of Tarkanian hugging Frank Sinatra that is signed: "My buddy. Frank."

Among the coaches who cover the walls are Jim Valvano of North Carolina State, John Chaney of Temple, Digger Phelps of Notre Dame, Rollie Massimino of Villanova and Gene Keady of Purdue. A diverse group, to say the least.

Indiana's Bob Knight is at the opposite end of the coaching profession from Tarkanian in the public's perception.

Knight has a program that is above reproach, and he is also on the wall.

Knight's picture carries the following message: "A great coach. An even better friend. Best wishes always."

It was ironic then that Tarkanian was back in the position of having to defend himself again last week when a former Knight assistant, Utah State first-year head coach Kohn Smith, made claims against the Nevada-Las Vegas program.

Smith mentioned luxury cars, suspicious grades and the diverse background of some of the Runnin' Rebels. Tarkanian was furious.

"He said Stacey Augmon had a luxury car. I told him it was 11 years old. It's just a big car," Tarkanian said, his voice rising as if the claims had just been made moments before.

"The guy was crazy. He called to apologize but I'm not going to accept his apology. I'm just not going to accept his apology. I told him that."

Tarkanian said coaches from around the country called him with words of support just as they had when the Supreme Court ruling was announced on December 12.

Tarkanian had obtained a state district court injunction in 1977 to block a two-year suspension ordered by the NCAA over alleged infractions against the Nevada-Las Vegas basketball program. The Supreme Court's ruling gave the NCAA the right to circumvent due process as a private organization.

The NCAA's Infractions Committee meets this week and any further suspension is unlikely since Tarkanian obtained a permanent state court injunction prohibiting his suspension by the university.

"It bothers me. It always bothers me. You have to think about it," he said.

Just like all the other comments about his program.

"It makes it very difficult, it really does. There's so much pressure in the job itself and concentration is such a key factor.

"It's hard to concentrate when you have all those things coming up all the time. It's something you have to do. It's tough but you have to do it. That's all.

"I think the Supreme Court thing set me back a little bit and set us back a little bit, too, emotionally and concentration-wise."

The Runnin' Rebels are 14-4 and all the losses have been against teams ranked in the Top Ten, a scheduling extreme.

"I told our guys we could play the good teams for good games or we could play the easy ones but they wouldn't help us," he said.

"We have not progressed at the rate I would like. I still think we still have time and we will before the year is up."