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The greatest programs: No. 20, UNLV

Some college basketball programs are synonymous with one name. When it comes to UNLV hoops, that name's Jerry Tarkanian. Even fewer names invoke a bigger love-hate relationship than Tark the Shark's.

Yet there's one unassailable fact when it comes to Tarkanian and hoops – the man won games at ridiculous rate.

And that reason makes UNLV is No. 20 among the greatest college basketball programs.

After all, unlike most of the schools on this list, the Runnin' Rebels haven't been playing hoops since before World War I. Their first season was 5-13 campaign in the 1958-59 season when the school was still Nevada Southern University (or "Tumbleweed Tech" depending on whom you asked). Yet the school didn't have another losing season until 1995.

So when a coach like Tarkanian spends 19 seasons in Vegas, wins 509 of 614 games (an .829 win percentage, better than Adolph Rupp), reaches four Final Fours and claims an NCAA title in 1990, it vaults a school without an excessively rich hoops history into the ranks of the elite.

The essential facts:

  • A .7127 win percentage, third best among NCAA schools, behind only Kentucky and North Carolina.
  • Three-three NCAA tournament victories, winning 69 percent of the time (a better percentage than Indiana and more wins than N.C. State or Temple) and all since 1975.
  • More regular-season conference crowns than Villanova, Georgetown and Michigan State.
  • Only six schools have spent more time atop the ranking than the Rebs' 32 weeks.

All of those numbers are impressive, but the best part about UNLV was the way it won games. Namely, the Rebs were fun to watch. They flew up and down the court, launched threes and always seemed to have NBA-caliber players coming in – and Tark was the reason why.

Tarkanian's teams always played phenomenal defense (his famed amoeba defense still earns plaudits). But when he arrived in Vegas he switched to an up-tempo, running offense to accommodate an undersized roster.

By 1977, he had his first Final Four team, a 29-3 squad that averaged more than 100 points a game that featured seven future NBA players, including a star in Reggie Theus. That year's champ, Marquette, coached by legendary Al McGuire, wanted nothing to do with the Rebs.

"If they get out of the gate quickly, we'd be in trouble, and if it comes down to a blacktop game, UNLV wins," he said at a UNLV banquet a few years ago.

Of course, that kind of success at a small, out-of-the-way school without any hoops heritage and with players that didn't seem up to the NCAA's snuff.

"The NCAA's always buggin' us," Theus told SI at the time. Tarkanian always claimed the NCAA unfairly targeted his program and his players.

Right or wrong, in 1977 the NCAA gave the school a two-year probation for alleged recruiting violations and ordered the school to suspend Tarkanian for a similar period. He appealed, won a state court injuction that allowed him to keep coaching and spent the next 13 years fighting the NCAA on its ruling, which gave the program a reputation that seemingly lived up to its Rebel mascot.

"Look, if they want to get you, they'll get you," added Jackie  Robinson. "All schools do something illegal. They have to, because the money they are allowed to give the players isn't enough to live on. I was considering quitting school because I didn't have money for food and no parents to give me any. The place I lived in last year was like Watts, holes in the wall and everything."

UNLV didn't return to the Big dance until Tarkanian and his son, Danny, led the team to the first of nine straight NCAA tourney berths in 1983. The 1984 squad started 22-1 and reached the Sweet 16 (something current coach Lon Kruger and his son, Kevin, also did in 2007).

By 1987, the Rebs were scary good again, launching three-pointers at will and running to a 37-1 record before losing to eventual champion Indiana in the Final Four (where Freddie Banks would hit 10-of-19 3s en route to 38 points).

That started a ridiculous 129-21 four-year run for Vegas. Only Duke and Kentucky (under Rupp and Rick Pitino) won more game in a four-year span, while only Dean Smith's Heels racked up more wins the '80s.

That kind of let 'er rip offense set the stage for 1989-90 and one of the more memorable teams college basketball's seen in the past 25 years.

When Tark's team trounced Duke in the 1990 NCAA Championship, the Rebs' shot 61 percent from the field during a 103-73 victory and became the first school to score 100 points in a championship game. The 30-point margin of victory set another record as the title game's most lopsided ever.

Among NCAA champions, that team still holds record for scoring average (93.5), field goals made (1,356) and attempted (2,672) and assists (926; no other champ has more than 800).

With future NBA lottery picks like Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony on the roster, the the Rebs were on the brink of back-to-back titles until Duke pulled off one of the biggest stunners of all time. The 79-77 victory is, simply put, one of the greatest games the game's ever seen and snapped a 45-game winning streak, the fourth longest in NCAA history.

Until that loss, it made sense to stage a logical debate of where UNLV stood in the annuals of the "best teams of all time."

Much like this season's Memphis squad, the Rebs were cast as villains throughout the season, even if neither comparison was quite right.

The NCAA, on the other hand, focused on Tarkanian and his alleged infractions in the '70s. It had to lift a ban to allow the Rebs to defend their title in '91, but stood firm on a ban for the '92 tourney (UNLV would finish 26-2).

An indignant Tarkanian railed against the NCAA during the 1990 Final Four -- 'I didn't break any rules and the N.C.A.A. never had one shred of evidence against me, absolutely zero,'' he told the New York Times then. ''But there was a vendetta against me. Why, I don't know.''

He resigned a few months after the loss to Duke and changed his mind a few months later, which cast the hoops program into upheaval. The resignation stuck, which seemed to appease the NCAA.

(Tark had the last laugh. He settled his suit with the NCAA for $2.5 million in 1998, essentially paying Tarkanian for all the headaches it gave him while investigating. Was it wrong to investigate? The N.Y. Times reported that out that only 4 of the 13 players on the 1977 Final Four team received degrees. Only one of the four was a starter and another received his degree from another institution. Two of the 13 were unemployed as of last year, two worked as valets in Las Vegas, three are playing basketball, one is a security guard, one is a teacher, another a realtor, one a college coach, and another works in a paper mill. The end line? They could hoop.)

The NCAA issues didn't end with Tarkanian, though. The school was put on probation in 2000 stemming from recruiting violations.

Kruger was brought on for the 2004-05 season, hovered around .500 for a couple of years, but seems to have the program back onto its winning ways.

He guided the Rebs to back-to-back NCAA tourney berths and 57 wins the last two seasons, feats not seen since Tark was chewing on his towel.

Next Tuesday: No. 19 on the list of greatest programs.

No. 21: Texas.

No. 22: Notre Dame.

No. 23: Temple.

No. 24: Oklahoma.

No. 25: N.C. State.