UNLV must come down stronger on Willis

UNLV athletic director Jim Livengood has stated often lately that he wants his department held accountable for its actions.


It's simple then: If the suspension of senior guard Tre'Von Willis remains at three games (laughably including two exhibitions) and he is allowed to play beginning Nov. 17 against Southeastern Louisiana, UNLV should be perceived as having a basketball program soft on discipline and not interested in making the appropriate statement for what won't be tolerated from its players.

You have to know who you are in these situations, and just because an on-campus compliance officer determined the standard discipline for a player with a misdemeanor charge next to his name is missing 10 percent of a season's games doesn't mean it's a fitting punishment for Willis or any player wearing a UNLV jersey.

How do you want your program perceived, because for all the wonderful things that define UNLV basketball -- its history of winning, its passionate fan base, its endless chain of terrific players -- there is a negative stigma attached to it that, while having faded over the years, might never disappear.

Jerry Tarkanian sued the NCAA and won more than $2 million. You don't hear about that, but mention one photo of a hot tub and the critics come from all corners.

It's not fair.

It's bigger than that.

It's perception, which is far more relevant today.

I don't know Willis well enough to say whether his apology Tuesday was sincere or not. I don't know how truly contrite he is after pleading no contest to misdemeanor battery-domestic violence. He might be entirely truthful, embarrassed, ashamed. He might not be. He might care deeply about making better decisions in the future. He might not at all.

Lon Kruger said the three-game suspension is just a beginning point, that if Willis doesn't comply with all phases of his discipline, he could miss more time.

But the UNLV coach knows more than anyone that public perception in these cases begins and ends with playing time. It's also the only thing a player cares about, the one thing that when withheld might teach a strong enough lesson that he (and others) don't repeat such off-court transgressions. It's what others will notice first -- how much time does he lose?

Counseling sessions and community service hours are court-mandated actions that, while they will hopefully help Willis understand the seriousness of his actions, will be performed out of view from most.

It does matter that UNLV plays Wisconsin in its third regular-season game. Maybe it shouldn't, but it does, because if Willis plays against the Badgers here Nov. 20, against the first real opponent on the schedule, those in charge should have saved their breath Tuesday. All the tough words will become meaningless.

It was amazing Kruger said with a straight face that the three-game suspension would include two exhibitions, although I'm sure they are partying like maniacs at Grand Canyon and Washburn today at the thought that Willis won't be playing his 20 or so minutes in such glorified scrimmages.

I don't know what happened between Willis and Skye Sanders in June. You don't. Two people in the world know, and when her version states he choked her for more than three minutes and his version is that he merely grabbed her hand and never touched her throat, there is a big enough discrepancy to think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

But this is not a misdemeanor of petty theft or public intoxication. This is putting your hands on another in anger, and that shouldn't play well anywhere at any time.

You don't bury Willis for Tuesday's court proceedings. You don't take from him his entire senior season. But you make a legitimate statement about what he did, and a proper one would be having his 2010 debut fall on Dec. 1 at Illinois State.

It would leave him 24 games and the conference tournament and any postseason games UNLV earns. It would cost him six games, including Wisconsin and the 76 Classic Tournament.

(Notice I did not mention the exhibitions, because before they were included in the suspension Tuesday, I was sure the funniest thing I would hear out at UNLV this week was football coach Bobby Hauck closing practices for the UNR game at the chance a few media members might actually choose to attend.)

Willis deserves the opportunity to make things right in his life and as a representative of UNLV basketball. He deserves a chance to prove his was a serious lapse in judgment and not be defined by one terrible choice. Livengood and Kruger deserve the opportunity to show how they want their basketball program perceived by making the tough but correct choice of extending the suspension.

"The program was damaged by Tre's actions," Kruger said. "This is not insignificant."

Matt Shaw failed an NCAA-administered drug test for marijuana and lost his senior season. Willis pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery-domestic violence, and the punishment begins at three games, including two that mean absolutely nothing.

Kruger is right. It's not an insignificant thing. Now, he and Livengood get the chance to prove it.

Because if this stays at three games including two exhibitions, well, keeping a straight face out there is going to become harder and harder when they talk about being held accountable.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618.