LAS VEGAS — It took 25 years but Duke and UNLV will finally meet again on Saturday afternoon.
The fifth-ranked Blue Devils (9-1) and the rebuilding Runnin’ Rebels (5-3) will play the first college basketball game at the new 18,000-seat T-Mobile Arena, future home of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights. The contest is part of the fourth annual MGM Grand Showcase, which benefits Coaches vs. Cancer.
The teams took part in two iconic NCAA Final Four games back in the early 1990s.
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UNLV, which was coached by controversial Hall of Famer Jerry Tarkanian and led by future NBA stars Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony, won its only national championship in 1990 with a 103-73 thrashing of the Blue Devils. The outcome was the largest margin of victory for an NCAA men’s Division I basketball tournament championship game.
Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils, led by Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley, got even the following year in Indianapolis, stunning the 34-0 Rebels, 79-77, in the semifinals en route to the 1991 national championship.
“There will be a lot of history because two of the greatest games in history — well, it wasn’t a great game on our part — but the largest margin in a championship, 103 points, and then ’91 in the semis is classic,” Krzyzewski said. “Historically, we shared a moment in time. We shared a moment where we each won.”
It’s fair to say UNLV basketball fans have been anxious for a rematch with Coach K and company since the gut-wrenching loss in 1991. Unfortunately, this version of the Runnin’ Rebels, who ironically come in off a 97-73 blowout loss to Hurley’s Arizona State Sun Devils last Saturday, is nowhere near the caliber of Tarkanian’s squads that went to four Final Fours between 1977 and 1991.
UNLV has played in only eight NCAA tournaments and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen just once since 1991. The Runnin’ Rebels return just three reserves from an underachieving 18-15 squad that cost head coach Dave Rice his job in midseason and featured an at-times comical coaching search that eventually led to the hiring of Marvin Menzies away from New Mexico State.
Meanwhile, Krzyzewski still roams the sidelines for the Blue Devils, who have gone to 17 Sweet Sixteens and won five NCAA titles since the last time the two teams have met. Many believe this version of Coach K’s squad, led by guards Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and Frank Jackson and featuring a trio of future freshman NBA lottery picks in Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Marques Bolden on the front line, could be Duke’s most talented team ever.
“At the end of the day, both programs have such fantastic brands that it draws the natural attention of folks who love the game and have been following the sport for quite some time,” Menzies told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “It’s a great opportunity for an upset. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
The Blue Devils also have 6-foot-10 sophomore forward Chase Jeter, whose father Chris was a backup forward on the 1990 and 1991 UNLV teams. Jeter prepped at nearby Bishop Gorman High School but picked Duke over the hometown Rebels, Arizona, UCLA and others.
“How ironic, huh?” Krzyzewski told the Duke Chronicle. “I think (Chris Jeter) even has Duke license plates. He’s very proud of what he did at Las Vegas, and he’s very proud of what his son is doing at Duke.”
Sophomore guard Jalen Poyser leads UNLV in scoring (17.5), which also ranks third in the Mountain West.
Senior forward Christian Jones, a transfer from St. John’s who Menzies hinted could be back after missing five games with a foot injury, is second in both scoring (14.0) and rebounding (7.0).
Kennard (20.4) and Tatum (16.0 points, 8.0 rebounds) lead a balanced Duke attack that features five players averaging in double figures.