FRESNO, Calif. -- Jerry Tarkanian insists he has no rancor toward the NCAA, just a sense of satisfaction in going back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in nine years.
But it's been a long journey back for the coach who once accused the NCAA of ''enforcement atrocities,'' and who spent years in court challenging the organization that tried in vain to have him suspended.
Tarkanian, who took UNLV to a national title a decade ago, leads Fresno State into a first-round game Thursday against Wisconsin.
''There's no vindication in getting back to the tournament. It's a big honor for the university,'' said Tarkanian, a 1955 graduate of Fresno State. ''This is my school. This is my alma mater.''
The 69-year-old coach is a few pounds heavier and chews on his neatly folded white towels a bit less than when he took UNLV to the national championship in 1990.
His Runnin' Rebels returned to the Final Four in 1991 and went 26-2 the following season. By then, UNLV was in NCAA trouble again, and Tarkanian was forced to resign after publication of photos showing three former players in a hot tub with a convicted sports fixer.
The last few years have been an odyssey for Tarkanian, who will be making his 17th NCAA tournament appearance. He ranks sixth with 37 NCAA tournament victories.
Tarkanian had a short stint as coach of the San Antonio Spurs, promising never to coach again after getting fired just 20 games into the 1992-93 season. Much of his time was spent contesting the NCAA in cases reaching as high as the Supreme Court.
In 1995, he returned to coaching. He took the job at Fresno State and pledged to revive a program with just two winning seasons in the previous decade.
The Bulldogs have won at least 20 games in each of Tarkanian's five seasons, but were overlooked by the NCAA tournament selection committee each of the previous four years. This time, with a 24-9 record and a Western Athletic Conference tournament championship, the Bulldogs were impossible to ignore.
Though Fresno State fans accused the NCAA of conspiring to keep Tarkanian out of the tournament the previous four seasons, the coach felt the omissions were justified.
''The last four years, we were very close but we never won the game we needed to get in,'' he said. ''I didn't feel we deserved to get in any of those years.''
This season, Fresno State features the nation's leading scorer, Courtney Alexander, and one of its top rebounders, Larry Abney.
Alexander, who transferred from Virginia after being convicted of hitting, choking and kicking his girlfriend, averaged 25.3 points this season.
The 6-foot-6 shooting guard returned for his senior year, turning down a probable NBA first-round selection. He'll be playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time since Virginia lost in the first round to Iowa when he was a sophomore.
''This feels so much better than I ever could have imagined,'' Alexander said. ''I've been in school five years and I've played in one NCAA tournament game, and I'm ready to play again.''
Abney, who ranked fourth in the nation in rebounding with 11.9 per game, had 35 rebounds against SMU this season -- the most in an NCAA game since 1965.
''He has had access to more physical talent than I'll ever have in a lifetime,'' Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett said, referring to Tarkanian's players at UNLV and Fresno State. ''And he's always been able to get them to play really hard.''
Bennett has led the Badgers (18-13) to the NCAA tournament three of the last four years, but still is looking for a first tournament win.
When Fresno State and Wisconsin play Thursday in Salt Lake City, most of the attention will be on Tarkanian -- the sad-eyed coach who has 733 victories and ranks second only to Dean Smith with 28 seasons of 20 or more wins.
The man who has been feuding with college basketball's establishment since writing newspaper columns critical of the NCAA three decades ago has seen Long Beach State and UNLV go on probation.
His history of mixing success with scandal has continued at Fresno State, which will be making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1984.
A federal investigation into accusations of point-shaving by Fresno State players four seasons ago has just been reopened. And several of Tarkanian's players at Fresno State have had other serious legal problems.
Tarkanian, who has never lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, knows things are a lot different now from his heyday with UNLV.
''The most fun thing I've ever experienced in my life is going to the Final Four,'' said Tarkanian, who made it there four times. ''We were always one of the top seeds. We always went to the tournament figuring we'd win it. When I was at UNLV, we always prepared for the second game. Now we're preparing for Wisconsin.''
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