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UNLV Hits Jackpot With Ackles’ Return : Basketball: Runnin’ Rebels even better with center back from injury. Tonight, UC Irvine gets a shot at defending NCAA champions.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nevada Las Vegas has hit town, unanimous No. 1 ranking and 11-0 record in tow.

Tonight, UC Irvine will be nothing more than a speed bump for the Runnin’ Rebels as they zoom toward a second consecutive NCAA championship. Tipoff is 9 p.m. in the Bren Center.

This is UNLV’s sixth Big West Conference game, and reports are that the Rebels are far better than last season’s 35-5 team that steamrolled Duke by 30 points in the NCAA final.

Some say the Rebels are the best college team in history. Better than the 1975-76 Indiana team with Kent Benson, Scott May, et al. Even better than the Bill Walton-led UCLA teams of 1972-73-74, and those Bruins won 88 consecutive games at one point.

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How can this be?

Take a long look at the Rebels’ 6-foot-9, 208-pound senior center, with No. 44 on his jersey.

He’s George Ackles, and by all accounts, he is the one responsible for moving UNLV from defending NCAA champion to NCAA legend.

He’s a more traditional center than either David Butler or Moses Scurry, who played the position last season. And he’s by far a better defender and shot-blocker. Ackles, who has started all 11 games, is averaging 9.3 points and 6.5 rebounds and has blocked 29 shots.

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What’s more, UNLV defenders can take more chances on defense and play tighter on the perimeter, knowing that if they are beaten, Ackles is behind them to swat away shots.

Two seasons ago, Ackles blocked a school-record 64 shots, and averaged 5.4 points and 4.6 rebounds while starting 27 games.

He broke his wrist in a pickup game before last season and was redshirted. And he worked on his game.

“I love Butler and Scurry,” UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian said. “Butler could guard anybody. He could switch off on a guard. George is just learning all that.”

There are other reasons the Rebels have been runnin’ more proficiently (they were 12-3 on this date last year).

For one thing, they have matured. There haven’t been any nasty rumbles as there were with Loyola Marymount and Utah State last year. For another, three returning players--Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony--were at least honorable mention All-Americans last season and a fourth who wasn’t--Anderson Hunt--was the NCAA tournament’s most valuable player.

But Ackles’ return has made UNLV unbeatable, according to many coaches in the Big West.

Here’s what they’re saying:

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Tarkanian: “He’s improved a lot. His first year here all he could do was jump. He’s still the weakest individual defender we have. But he’s so improved defensively.”

Ackles’ great leaping ability comes from years of playing goalie on his high school soccer team in Manteo, N.C. He didn’t begin playing basketball until he was a junior at Manteo High.

Gary Colson, Fresno State: “How soon we forget who played the position last year.”

Stan Morrison, San Jose State: “The way his talent blends in, it only complements everyone else. He fits their team to a T.”

UNLV’s 95-63 victory over the Spartans Jan. 7 was the Rebels’ 20th in a row dating to last season.

John Sneed, Cal State Fullerton: “He adds a little different dimension.”

Ackles, having jumped too quickly, regrouped in midair and blocked a Fullerton player’s shot in the Rebels’ 98-67 victory Jan. 4.

And this from Bill Mulligan, UC Irvine: “I don’t even think about Ackles. Why don’t you do a story on H Waldman. He’s a 3.8 student. I better not say that, (Ackles) will probably get 100 off us.”

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Mulligan and an expected sellout crowd of 5,000 will find out tonight. And really, Mulligan can say that because UNLV has so many weapons, it’s impossible to concentrate on stopping one player.

Stop Johnson and you run the risk of letting Augmon or Ackles run wild; stop Johnson, Augmon and Ackles inside, and Anthony and Hunt will bomb away from three-point range, or so the conventional wisdom goes.

Or take it one step further, as Colson does.

“You don’t worry about them,” he said. “You prepare for the next team.”

If there’s one player who has proved he can handle Ackles, it’s UCI center Ricky Butler.

Two seasons ago, Butler had what was then a career-high 25 points in the Anteaters’ 99-98 victory at the Bren Center.

“I made a lot of pump fakes and he kept jumping,” Butler said. “I fouled him out, too.

“He makes you think about your shot. He’s a lot better now. I’ve watched (UNLV) on TV a couple of times, it looks like he’s gotten a lot better.”

Indeed, it seems Ackles just completes an already impossible-to-solve puzzle.


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