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Between whistles, Thomas finds his way with Rebels

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — This is a different kind of rust. This has nothing to do with a series of iron oxides or corrosion, unless you count a lack of defensive readiness.

If the key to self-confidence really is preparation, Quintrell Thomas is still figuring out how best to appear secure in his approach. Fear and basketball mix like Lon Kruger and trash talking.

"In my mind, I still am probably playing a little (fearful) of fouling," Thomas said. "I’m definitely getting in the flow a little more, but it was hard in the beginning. It seemed like the second I got a foul, I was out for a long time.

"Once that happens, it’s hard to get back into a rhythm and come in and produce right away. I was frustrated. Guys who have been around longer seemed to have more confidence."

Thomas is the starter among a three-headed monster that has been more house cat when playing along UNLV’s frontline this season, a sophomore transfer from Kansas who returns to this mecca of barbecue and jazz tonight when the Rebels play No. 11 Kansas State at the Sprint Center.

Thomas is listed at 6 feet 8 inches and 245 pounds, and it was thought his presence this season would lessen the problems UNLV encountered last year against teams such as Kansas State and San Diego State and others with forwards who control games at the rim.

UNLV is quicker than most opponents on the perimeter and will match most anyone for how physical its guards defend, but facing long, athletic frontcourts isn’t something that has produced many positives of late.

Thomas can help alter that trend.

You know. If he stays on the floor.

Thomas has had his share of problems with whistles. They seem to be blown in his direction a lot. He averages 15 minutes and has been limited by foul trouble several times. He played five minutes at Louisville, eight against Southeastern Louisiana and seven against Wisconsin.

In 12 games, he has fouled out once, has had four fouls three times and at least three five times.

"A lot of it is timing, being comfortable, knowing what you can get away with and what you can’t," UNLV assistant coach Greg Grensing said. "It’s an experience factor. You can’t accelerate it. You have to go through it. Quintrell is getting better at it. It’s just going to take more time.

"(Playing fearful) is a lose-lose deal. You can’t not be aggressive. It has been hard on him. Those games where he gets 5-8 minutes because of fouls really hurts his confidence and, more importantly, doesn’t give him the opportunity to grow as quickly."

The glass-half-full perspective tells you there have been glimpses, that while Chace Stanback was UNLV’s best player at the 76 Classic this month, the Rebels might not have survived Anaheim unbeaten without Thomas.

He shot 15-for-17 in three games and scored a career-high 14 points in the championship against Virginia Tech. In a semifinal against Murray State, he played a season-best 24 minutes and made all five shot attempts.

He has now gone three straight games with no more than three fouls, a promising miniature streak that could be seriously tested tonight. The other parts of the house cat are junior Brice Massamba and redshirt freshman Carlos Lopez, and none of the three ranks among the team’s top five in scoring or top three in rebounding. The latter is an obvious concern.

"I think Coach Kruger is starting to trust me a little more with (playing time)," Thomas said. "I’ve just got to adjust. The transition after (sitting out a transfer season) hasn’t been as smooth as I expected, but it’s coming along.

"I think as a team we became a little complacent after starting out (9-0). After the Anaheim trip, it seemed like we relaxed. It’s about time we got a killer instinct back."

Quintrell Thomas left this state in search of more playing time, having found himself in that all-too-familiar reality of falling behind in a numbers game at one of the nation’s elite programs.

He came to UNLV to make a difference in games like the Rebels face tonight and others to come in conference play.

There have been glimpses.

There needs to be more.

"I’m not totally there yet," he said. "But it’s getting better."

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can also be heard from 2 to 4 p.m. Monday and Thursday on "Monsters of the Midday," FOX Sports Radio 920 AM.

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