I have ESPN Classic now!
Yep, totally. And on like the second day after I found out about this new development in my ongoing shitty relationship with Satan - I mean, Comcast - the "Old Bowling, Billiards, and Boxing" channel actually came through by showing a classic college basketball game which I find fascinating: Duke's monumental upset of UNLV in the 1991 Final Four.
This game has always intrigued me, for a few reasons. First and foremost, I didn't get to see it when it happened. I was 10 years old, and we were driving back home from Florida after Easter break. Yep, IN the car. While the Final Four was happening. Consequently, my only recollection of the game is listening to it on the radio, over the AM feed of some shitty sports-talk station from ... Baton Rouge, I think. Secondly, the psychological aspects of the game were particularly noteworthy. In the 1990 title game, UNLV creamed Duke by 30, still the most lopsided title game in tournament history. Duke lost 3 starters from that team; Vegas lost 1, and returned their top 5 scorers. Duke was visibly intimidated in 1990 (most notably Bobby Hurley, who got eaten alive by Greg Anthony), and UNLV had a swagger of "we know we're gonna kick your ass" that I've only seen in one or two other college basketball teams (Gordon, Okafor, and UConn in '04; Kentucky in '96; maybe Kansas in '97, even though they lost). The rematch in '91 afforded no small degree of interesting matchups and storylines.
The last reason is, Cheeses H. Cripes that UNLV team was loaded, and they absolutely blew the doors off of every team they played that year, and I really just ... I mean, how the hell did they lose? History has not been particularly kind to that '91 Rebel team, maybe because of the sanctions they ended up with, I don't know. But last year when ESPN was doing all their "top 25 (whatever)" lists, they did a "top 25 teams" of the ESPN era, and '90 UNLV was on there, but '91 wasn't. Yeah, I know, the '90 team won it all and the '91 team lost in the semis. But anyone who remembers those two years knows that the '91 team was clearly the better and more dominant version - plus they get bonus points because of the "Back-to-back" t-shirts they sold prematurely. I wonder if Joe Brodie still has his.... Shit, the '90 team lost to UC Santa Barbara and snuck by Louis Wilson (he DUNKED THE BALL!!!) and Ball State by 2 in the Sweet Sixteen. In '91, UNLV CLOBBERED every single team they played up until the Duke game. They had an average margin of victory in the mid-30s. Twice during the regular season they played non-conference games on the road against top-5 teams (Michigan State and Arkansas), and they obliterated both of them. The talk during the '91 season wasn't "are they the best team," but rather, "where do they rank on the list of all-time great teams?" They were unreal.
So, of course I TiVo'd the game. And, as you saw above, I had a few questions I needed answered...
1.) What the Christ was the "Amoeba"?
In case you don't remember, UNLV's great teams of '90 and '91 ran what what was popularly referred to as the "amoeba defense." This always fascinated me. What does it do? Why call it that? Isn't that the coolest fucking name for a defensive system in sports history? The aforementioned Joe Brodie's father (a HS bball coach) once told me that "the key to the ameoba is that the offense has a hard time telling whether you're running a 'zone' or a 'man.'"
Wait a minute...
WHAT THE HELL DOES THAT MEAN????
I had no answers. So, on watching my taped version of the game, I had a few observations:
a.) UNLV tried to beat you with man-to-man pressure, and resorted to the amoeba if you were scoring a lot on them. The announcers even remarked at one time during the Duke game that Tarkanian "put an asterisk" next to any game where they had to bust out the amoeba.
b.) It might have been the announcers (Jim "I can't wait to make this awful pun" Nantz and the loathesome Billy Packer) erroneously calling some other zone the amoeba occasionally, but it alternatingly looked like a 2-3 and/or a 1-3-1. My confusion heightened.
c.) UNLV made a nice run just about every time they were in the amoeba, making me wonder why the hell they ever went out of it.
d.) When they were in the supposed amoeba, it looked oddly disorganized. Weird rotations, counter-intuitive responsibilities, and lots of wild aggression. Cool, I guess. But what is the method behind this madness?
A cursory internet search has barely answered my queries. The amoeba was apparently created by a coach at Pitt named Fran Webster. It is essentially an aggressive 1-3-1 matchup zone, the goal of which is to force the ball to the sidelines and initiate traps. It seems pretty high-risk, high-reward, and this page highlights why it may have looked "disorganized" to me, despite the fact that the author there seems to present it as a 3-2 zone. Fran Fraschilla went in another direction and described its principles thusly:
The Amoeba starts in a 1-1-3 zone alignment, with the top defender picking up the other team's point guard and applying intense defensive pressure. Each pass in the zone offense is met with great pressure on the ball... it contained many of UNLV's pressure man-to-man concepts... it is a defense that is not used much because, I believe, the slides of the Amoeba are more complicated than traditional zone slides and take more teaching time.
Here's some more goofy shit on it, in the unlikely event that you're as ridiculously interested as I was. And more.
2.) The $25,000 Question: how the hell did Duke win?
Some notes on this, in handy-dandy outlined format:
a.) UNLV came in over-confident
The fact that it's obvious makes it no less true: the Rebels hadn't been truly tested in their previous 38 games, and they probably entered the game taking Duke too lightly. Thoughts of a blowout victory were probably dispelled after the Blue Devils jumped out to a 15-6 lead. And on a semi-related note...
b.) Duke came in pissed off
They had gotten their asses handed to them the year before in utterly embarrassing fashion. Approximately 0.0% of the "pundits" out there gave them a snowball's chance in hell at winning. The phrase "chip on their shoulder" was invented for situations like this, where Duke displayed the coveted attitude of controlled fury for the entire game. An epic angered performance.
c.) Grant Freaking Hill
In 1991, UNLV had two players who were AP All-Americans: Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon. Because of this information, one has to assume that Augmon had a ginormous year in 1991. And he did. But he did NOTHING in the game against Duke. And I think the foremost reason for that was a freshman named Grant Hill. Augmon probably provided painfully difficult matchups for the vast majority of Vegas' opponents, but this might have been the first time in his career that he faced an opposing player with his then-unique combination of height, skill, speed, and agility. And he plainly seemed mindfucked by this.
Also, Hill occasionally brought the ball up the court, giving Bobby Hurley a break from having to advance the ball against UNLV's pressure defense. He didn't have a ton of points, but Hill's effect on the game was immeasurable.
d.) UNLV didn't get the ball to "L for Larry" enough
No one on Duke could guard Larry Johnson. Greg Freaking Koubek spent the majority of the game guarding him - with TONS of weakside help from Laettner - and the Rebels hardly ever made a concerted effort to get him the ball. I would venture to guess that 70-80% of Johnson's points came on put-backs.
e.) Christian Laettner
The prototypical Duke punk-ass ... but what a phenomenal college player. Johnson provided big matchup problems for Duke, but Laettner provided monumental matchup problems for Vegas. The only one on UNLV's team who could guard him was Johnson, but if that happened, the Rebels had to go out of their gameplan and play small, because there was no one else on Duke that center George Ackles could conceivably cover. Tarkanian said after the game, "The big thing that hurt was what we were most afraid of: they didn't have anyone our center could guard, and that changed our whole defense. Other teams have tried to do that, but they didn't have anyone as good as Laettner." He was the catalyst for Duke's early run, which gave the Devils invaluable confidence for the rest of the game. Oh, and he hit the game-winning free throws with 12 seconds left.
3.) Where does this game rank?
'91 Duke-UNLV is, in my humble opinion, severely short-changed on the list (whether actually compiled or just in people's memories) of fantastic college basketball games. I think most of it stems from the fact that the game is overshadowed by Duke-Kentucky, which occurred a scant one year later. Well now I have both games on tape, and the '91 game puts up a helluva fight against the '92 one. The big things the Duke-UNLV game has going for it are, in ascending order of importance:
iv. It came later in the tournament. Duke-Kentucky was for the right to get to the Final Four; Duke-UNLV actually occurred there. Might not make a difference to some, but I'll give it a little bump because of it.
iii. The appearance of Anderson Hunt, who should be, in my opinion, one of the charter members of the Nigerian Soccer Team. He had textbook jumpshooting form, and was a tenacious defender. He was the tournament Most Outstanding Player in '90. In '91, he put up 29 on Duke despite the loss, and the battle for "best player on the floor" was clearly a toss-up between him and Laettner. He went pro after that, his junior year. AND. DID. NOTHING. Flat-out disappeared, while Anthony, Augmon, and Johnson all had NBA careers of at least 8 seasons. Baffling. A Nigerian Soccer Team member if there ever was one. Did we ever come up with a definitive list of that over on the old theblog.net?
ii. It was just flat-out better played. The dirty little secret of Duke-Kentucky is the fact that, up until the last five minutes of regulation and the entire overtime, the game was sloppy and out of control. Bobby Hurley, who had a bit of a tendency to try to do too much, had like 11 turnovers against Kentucky's pressure. Kentucky looked like crap until about the 10:00 mark of the second half. The last ten minutes of the game (last 5:00 of regulation and the OT) might be the most sublimely well-executed stretch of play in college basketball history. But the rest of the game is kind of all over the place.
i. The upset factor. As I alluded to above, people hear "Duke" now, and they just forget about what massive underdogs that '91 team was to UNLV. A couple of years ago, The Sporting News ranked it as the #4 upset in tournament history (behind 'Nova-G'Town in '85, NC State-Houston in '83, and DePaul-BC in '82), and led off their article thusly:
Wait a second. A Duke victory considered an upset win? Mind you, this is a Duke team coached by Mike Krzyzewski and led by Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley. And they scored one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history?
You bet. That's how dominating the UNLV Runnin' Rebels were in 1991.
That pretty much paints the picture. An all-time-level upset, one that no one saw coming.
Yep, there it is. An epic, 4,000-word treatise on a basketball game that happened one month shy of 15 years ago. Awesome.