Tuesday, September 3, 2013
Jerry Tarkanian: His top 10 players
By Eamonn Brennan
Larry Johnson rose from the juco ranks to carry UNLV to a national title.
Editor's Note: Three legendary college basketball coaches -- Jerry Tarkanian, Rick Pitino and Guy Lewis -- take center stage this weekend as the trio is inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. We'll be devoting a day to each as we examine what made them HOF-worthy.
As part of our Hall of Fame week celebrations, I'm ranking the 10 best players of Jerry Tarkanian's coaching career. (Check back during the week for other similar lists.) As you might expect, most of them played for Tark at UNLV. But one did not.
Oh, and in case you thought the process of ranking these players was painstaking, well, it was, sort of, but not nearly as much as it could have been, were it not for the help of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and, yes, Tarkanian himself. That's right: In 2010, the Review-Journal published the results of a 25-person panel charged with ranking the top 100 players in UNLV history. That was a handy reference, to say the absolute least. Even better? The newspaper also solicited the views of Tarkanian himself, who refused to mince words -- both positive and negative -- about his former players. My favorite: "Lewis Brown is [ranked] too high. He was a pain in the [bleep] in a lot of ways." My second favorite: "Jackie Robinson is too high. Jackie couldn't shoot. He could jump to the moon, but he couldn't shoot." Pretty great, right?
Anyway, with some thanks to the paper and the Shark himself, here's a quick rundown of the 10 best players of Tarkanian's tremendous coaching career.
1. Larry Johnson, UNLV: Sitting on the beach this weekend, before I had even opened my laptop to begin trying to pretend to think about this list, Larry Johnson was locked in at No. 1. You probably don't need me to run down Johnson's credentials, but before he went on to that good-but-disappointing pro career, he posted career averages of 21.6 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.9 steals, 1.2 blocks per game, with 64.3/34.9/78.9 shooting percentages. He won the Wooden Award and a national title, and he was by far the best player on a team that packs this list. Point is, this was a done deal before my editor even assigned me this list. Too easy. As for Tark? "Larry stood out way above everyone," he told the Review-Journal three years ago. "I think he was the best by far." No argument here.
2. Stacey Augmon, UNLV: As good as Johnson was, UNLV was a force unseen in college basketball because he was surrounded by some rather insane supporting pieces — none more so than Augmon, whom Bill Walton famously dubbed "The Plastic Man." (Bill Walton has been at peak awesomeness levels for decades now, kids.) A four-year player who averaged 13.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.9 steals in -- get this -- an average of 36.23 games per season, Augmon was the versatile star-level wing who gave UNLV's overwhelming athleticism both offensive versatility and defensive backbone. He won the NABC Defensive POY award three times. He was crazy-good in ways old box scores can only tease.
3. Armen Gilliam, UNLV: Armen Gilliam "was the second-best player I coached at UNLV," according to Tarkanian. I'm going to stick to my Augmon guns, but you can understand where the old ball coach is coming from. After all, the historic excellence of Tarkanian's early-'90s teams has long since overshadowed how good the Rebels were in the mid-1980s. But during Gilliam's tenure -- 1984 to 1987 -- the Rebels were 93-11 overall, usually ranked No. 1, and won 38 games in one season, still the most by any one team in a single season. Another single-season record -- 938 points, the most scored by any UNLV player -- belongs to Gilliam, who averaged 23.2 points on 15.3 field goals in 32.3 minutes per game in 1986-87. Also, his nickname was "The Hammer," one of the best hoops nicknames ever. (When it came to awesome nicknames, UNLV players had the market cornered.) Gilliam passed away during a pickup game in 2011 at age 47, but his basketball legacy, including that magical '87 Final Four run, lives on.
4. Sidney Green, UNLV: Tark on Green: "Sidney Green only had one great year for us. But his senior year was great. He's in the top 10 but not the top five." Is it cool to slightly disagree again? I hate to do it, but look: Yes, Green's senior year was capital-G Great (22.1 points, 11.9 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 36.1 minutes per game), but it was hardly his only elite year — he averaged 10.7 boards per game for his career, and posted 15.6, 15.0 and 16.7 points per game in each of those three seasons in the early 80s. Coaches are always looking for more from their guys, and you can bet Tark knew what Green had to give even when Green didn't; that had to be massively frustrating. But if we're being fair, Sidney Green was really, really good.
5. Reggie Theus, UNLV: Theus' career stats -- 12.9 points, 4.4 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game in 91 career games (over three seasons) -- might not pop your eyeballs out of your head. But the teams he played for, most notably the 29-3 Final Four team from 1977, officially put Tarkanian's program on the map. Not only did those Runnin' Rebels teams introduce UNLV to the nation but they did so through a thrilling, up-tempo style -- matching burgeoning Las Vegas flash with genuine substance.
Greg Anthony was a perfect fit at the point for Tarkanian's national championship team.
6. Ed Ratleff, Long Beach State: Tarkanian will always be remembered for his Vegas teams, but Tark gave his first preview of the power shift that was to come during his years at the Beach. Ratleff was by far his best player; he and his teammates went 75-12 in three seasons under Tarkanian, during which Ratleff averaged 21.4 points per game. In 1971, the 49ers led three-time defending champ UCLA by as many as 11 points before Ratleff was called for what he now politely deems a "strange" fifth foul. The 49ers eventually fell 57-55, and UCLA went on to win its fourth national title. Later, Ratleff would play on the 1972 Olympic team that refused its silver medal after a controversial gold-medal game loss to the USSR.
7. Greg Anthony, UNLV: This might be the craziest thing about those UNLV teams: Just about anywhere else in the country, Greg Anthony would have been the best player on his team for pretty much his entire career. In Vegas, he was the third wheel. But what a third wheel he was -- a smart, capable, push-the-pace point guard who made the Runnin' Rebels go.
8. Eddie Owens, UNLV: If Theus was the most notable player from the 1977 team that put the Rebels on the map, Owens was the linchpin. A member of Tarkanian's first recruiting class, Owens departed Des Moines for Vegas in 1973 back when UNLV was mostly unheard of, basketball-wise. By the end of his four years, Tarkanian was off and running.
9. J.R. Rider, UNLV: Easily one of the most talented players in Tarkanian's tenure, Rider's career peaked just after Tark's tenure and was known as much for its downs (particularly later, during his NBA days) as its ups. Still, Rider did post 29.1 points and 8.9 rebounds per game in the 1992-93 season, while shooting 51.5 percent from the field, 40.1 percent from 3 and 82.6 percent from the free throw line, which is so crazy good it almost doesn't matter that it came one year after Tarkanian was forced to resign.
10. Freddie Banks, UNLV: From Tark, on the Review-Journal's list, which ranked Banks No. 8: "I love Freddie Banks. He was a clutch shooter. God, he hit big shots for us. His ranking is about right." You said it, coach.
Honorable mention, just because: Anderson Hunt, UNLV: I would tend to lean toward the guy who hit the game-winning shot against Arizona in the 1989 Sweet 16, which might be the most memorable single shot in Tarkanian's entire career. Plus, Hunt could really play, despite being overlooked in favor of the Johnson/Augmon/Anthony glory days trifecta. So, honorable mention. Exactly what it says it is, actually.