Rebels concede little to BYU


It's natural to watch Jimmer Fredette and come away impressed with the Brigham Young junior guard. Flaws in his game are hard to find.

Fredette has earned rave reviews from almost everyone in the Mountain West Conference. Almost everyone.

"I don't admire anything from other teams," said UNLV junior guard Tre'Von Willis, when asked about Fredette's assets.

Willis doesn't have a vote for the league's Player of the Year, but he can influence the balloting and, more important, leadership of the conference when the Rebels (18-4, 6-2 MWC) host the 12th-ranked Cougars (22-2, 7-1) at 1 p.m. today at the Thomas & Mack Center.

UNLV is in position to tie BYU for first place, so the showdown between Fredette and Willis, considered the conference's top two players, is secondary.

"Fredette is the guy who was labeled the leading candidate going in, understandably, and his play certainly hasn't done anything to deflect that," Rebels coach Lon Kruger said. "Obviously, Tre has played extremely well and entered into that conversation.

"But I don't think either player is thinking too much about that."

Kruger is expecting a "great atmosphere" with a crowd of more than 18,000. UNLV has won six straight meetings between the teams at the Thomas & Mack, and the last one -- a 75-74 decision -- drew the Rebels' first sellout (18,523) since January 1993.

But the Rebels are looking to avenge a 77-73 loss to the Cougars on Jan. 6 at Provo, Utah. UNLV led by six points with six minutes to go.

"This is a game we really need to win, especially after going to their place and having the game and then losing it at the end," sophomore guard Oscar Bellfield said. "It's an opportunity to get it back."

Bellfield and sophomore forward Chace Stanback are UNLV's most prominent weapons in support of Willis, who has averaged 21.6 points in eight MWC games and 17.2 overall.

Fredette is averaging 21.5 points, including 21.1 in league play, and he's the favorite to win Player of the Year if BYU takes the regular-season title.

Willis is not hyping the duel, but he's not shying away from it.

"Everything is a challenge to me," Willis said. "I don't really get caught up in one-on-one battles, but I do want to win every battle that I come across."

The 6-foot-2-inch Fredette is strong on the dribble drive and even more dangerous from 3-point range, where he's hitting 57.9 percent (22-for-38) in league games.

"He can score every way," Kruger said. "He shoots the 3, drives it and he's a really good finisher. He gets his teammates involved. Fredette does so many things well."

Fredette was weakened by strep throat and held to a season-low seven points on 2-for-10 shooting in the Cougars' victory over the Rebels last month. He was later diagnosed with mononucleosis, according to BYU coach Dave Rose, but Fredette missed only one game and certainly seems back to full strength.

In his past four games, Fredette has averaged 30.5 points and made 17 of 25 3-pointers and 29 of 31 free throws.

"Any open look is a high-percentage shot for him, so you have to limit those and notice where he is on the court," Bellfield said. "He's the main thing that we need to focus on, but we can't really get too stuck on just him."

UNLV's perimeter defense on Fredette will be critical, but the Cougars spread the floor with an array of shooters. Jackson Emery, Tyler Haws and Jonathan Tavernari, a senior forward out of Bishop Gorman High, each shoot from 36 percent to 40 percent from 3-point range.

"They are very good in transition, and they have a lot of very good shooters," Kruger said, "so you have to disrupt their rhythm a little bit. But it's easier said than done."

While Willis won't be a publicist for Fredette, he did acknowledge the scoring threat he presents.

"He can shoot it, and he can drive it. You've really got to be ready for a battle. If you relax, he can basically get what he wants," Willis said. "You can't force him left and you can't force him right, so you've got to play him squared up and try to make him take tough shots."

As of now, Willis is arguably the No. 2 player in the league, and the Rebels are definitely in second place. But some of that could change.

"That's good to be mentioned like that throughout the league," Willis said. "But what I really want is for us to take care of business and win as many games as possible."

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907.

 

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