The 1990-1991 Runnin' Rebels were considered one of the most dominant teams in all of college basketball. Coming off the most lopsided National Championship victory the previous season over Duke, UNLV reeled off an impressive 34 straight wins before the Blue Devils eventually got revenge in the Final Four on their way to a national title.
Lead by hall of fame coach Jerry Tarkanian and a roster stacked with talent, the Runnin' Rebels came at opponents with an up-tempo offense and suffocating defense capable of turning a close game into a blowout in a matter of minutes.
Dominating almost all of their opponents in the regular season, UNLV found themselves ranked No. 1 in the AP Polls throughout the entire season and went into the NCAA Tournament as the #1 seed in the West.
Similar to the success UNLV was having at this time, the Wichita State Shockers are currently experiencing arguably the greatest season in the 108 year history of the basketball program. Gregg Marshall, in his seventh year as head coach has brought this team to new heights. After advancing to the final four for only the second time in team history last season, Wichita State's success isn't as shocking as their NCAA Tournament run last year, but their undefeated season is still pretty remarkable.
Despite the great season Wichita State has had up to this point, there are many pundits who point to WSU's strength of schedule and conference opponents and see them as a team who is not as dominant as their 34-0 record might indicate.
So just for fun, lets compare this Wichita State team to the 1991 Runnin' Rebels and see how they stack up.
Wichita State has averaged a respectable 75.5 PPG this season. Lead by senior forward Cleanthony Early averaging 15.8 points per game, the Shockers currently stand at 66th in the nation in PPG. Guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet have also provided solid production on offense this season. Baker averages 13.1 points per game and 3.1 assists per game, while VanVleet averages 12.1 PPG and 5.3 APG.
The offense may not be the focal point of this team, but the Shockers have proven at times that they are more than capable of going on runs and putting games out of reach when necessary. The times when WSU has given up more than usual on defense, they have shown they could put up enough points to come away with a victory.
Although Wichita State has been pretty solid on offense this season, there is definitely a considerable difference between the Shockers and the '91 Runnin' Rebels offensively. UNLV was simply on another level. The Rebels dominated their opponents by an average of 26.7 points. A record that currently stands at 5th all time.
Between Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony, Stacy Augman, Anderson Hunt and George Ackles, it was nearly impossible to shut down the Rebels offensively.
Anthony was an intelligent, gifted athlete who ran the offense with precision, focus and confidence.
Known more notably for his defense, Stacey Augmon used his length and leaping ability to convert difficult shots with ease and almost always executed in transition.
Anderson Hunt might have occasionally benefited from other teams doubling Johnson in the post or collapsing the driving lane for Anthony or Augmon, but his beautiful stoke and ability to finish above the rim always made him a factor to be accounted for.
And of course the big man himself, Larry Johnson. His strength and athleticism made him one of the most difficult players to defend in the post. His ball handling skills and shooting touch made him a threat on all areas on the court, even from beyond the perimeter. A truly dominant player who signified everything the Runnin' Rebels were about at this time.
To put some of this into context, UNLV eclipsed 100 points 14 times in 1991, while Wichita State has failed to do so even once this season.
Wichita State allows just 59.6 points points per game. Good for No. 12 in the nation. Cleanthony Early leads the team in rebounds, averaging 5.9 this season. He's been a factor on both ends of the court. The Shockers as a team average 26.7 rebounds per game.
They also stand at 35th overall in blocks. Averaging 5.1 per game. Wichita State doesn't force a whole lot of turnovers, but they do a great job of contesting and forcing opponents into bad shots. They don't really allow other teams to get into any offensive rhythm. WSU will slow down and frustrate their opponents. And when you do make a mistake, they will always make you pay for it on the other end.
While UNLV put up 99.5 points a game, they also gave up 71.4 to their opponents. It wasn't as big of an issue considering what the Rebels were putting up on offense. And the few times where UNLV was held to a low point total, the defense always stepped up to put the game out of reach.
The Runnin' Rebels did have the tools to be truly dominant on the defensive side of the ball, but with the high tempo offense that Tarkanian liked to run, there had to be sacrifices. And considering most of the weaker teams UNLV faced simply added to their point totals in garbage time, I'd say the stats don't tell the whole story.
Stacey Augmon was a player who's efforts on defense surely deserve some recognition though. "Plastic Man" used his length and athleticism to disrupt offensive plays and frustrate opponents. A three time winner of the NABC Defensive Player of the Year award. Augmon's contributions were key to UNLV's success at this time.
Still, I would have to give the advantage over to Wichita State. Defense is what has set the pace for their remarkable run. And when they are clicking on offense as well, they are a force to be reckoned with.
Strength of Schedule
A major knock on Wichita State this season has been the level of competition they have faced both non-conference and within in the Missouri Valley. Other than an impressive victory at Saint Louis early in December, the Shockers have essentially taken care of the opponents they've been expected to beat on their way to a 34-0 record.
Even some of their victories might be considered too close to comfort, especially considering the lesser opponents they have faced this season. A lack of pure dominance is the only thing keeping me from being completely sold on Wichita State. This is only exemplified when you begin to compare to what the Rebels were doing in '91.
The Big West was relatively on par with what the Shockers have faced in The Valley this season, however New Mexico State did go as high as No. 11 in the AP Polls and earned a #6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, before suffering a disappointing 64-56 loss to Creighton in the first round. To somewhat compensate for the lack of quality Big West opponents, coach Tarkanian always scheduled tough out of conference schedules for his UNLV teams.
The 1990-1991 season saw the Rebels face Louisville (No.23), Michigan State (No. 4), and Arkansas (No. 2). Two on the road, one on a neutral court. All three victories for the Runnin' Rebels.
So while the Shockers haven't faced the level of competition that UNLV did in '91, they've still walked away from every game this season with a victory. And that's all that really matters. The kids on that team have no say in what opponents they face and shouldn't have to apologize for winning basketball games.
The Runnin' Rebels notably had three players selected in the top 12 of the first round of the 1991 NBA Draft. Larry Johnson going No. 1 overall to the Charlotte Hornets, Stacey Augmon to the Atlanta Hawks at No. 9 and Greg Anthony going at No. 12 to the New York Knicks.
George Ackles was ultimately reunited with Anthony in New York. Being selected late in the second round by the Knicks.
A credit to the level of talent UNLV had on it's roster, center Elmore Spencer, who came off the bench during the '91 season, also got picked up in the first round the following year. Being selected by the Los Angeles Clippers at No. 25 overall.
As for the 2014 NBA Draft, senior forward Cleanthony Early appears to be by far the best potential prospect on Wichita State's roster.
After two years at Sullivan Community college, Early came to Wichita State and had a very solid first season as a Shocker. This season he has taken it to a new level and that definately bodes well for his draft stock.
Averaging 15.7 points, 5.9 rebounds in 27.5 minutes per game, Early has shot 45.7 % from the field and 35.4% from beyond the perimeter. His athleticism and leadership skills in guiding this team to a 34-0 record also should be accounted for.
Sophomore guard Ron Baker also has a potential future in the NBA. Averaging 13.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists, his 44.3 field goal percentage and 35.4 from three point range is nothing remarkable, but with two more years at Wichita State, he can very well develop his game and find himself in the NBA one day.
The 1991 Runnin' Rebels were a truly dominant basketball team. The pure talent and leadership on the roster was something that doesn't around come too often in the NCAA.
That being said, the end result was not a National Championship and therefore it's obviously not remembered as fondly as UNLV's 1990 Championship season.
The Wichita State Shockers might not have as much talent or appear to be as dominant as the Runnin' Rebels were in '91. And they will definately have a tough outing in the stacked Midwest region. But if they can run the tables in the NCAA Tournament and complete a perfect season, they will be remembered as as one of the greatest teams of all time.