Dogged Willis is difference

TUCSON, Ariz. — Tre’Von Willis is the basketball player who acts as if he has never committed a foul, whose face can contort into a maze of annoyance, who can give the impression of a guy perpetually perturbed by the mistakes of others.

Translation: He is a fierce competitor.

"He wears the emotions on his sleeve," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "He competes. When he’s not happy, he shows it. I have no problem with that. I like his toughness. When things don’t go his way, he shows it and people like to point and say, ‘That’s the problem.’

"That’s not the problem."

It was the furthest thing from the problem Wednesday night. Willis was, 40 minutes of regulation and two overtime periods later, a main reason UNLV continued its perfect beginning to the season.

This is how you answer earning a spot in the top-25 polls for the first time since 2007. You take to the road for the first time in six games and grind out a double-overtime win against a nationally respected program whose pedigree surely outweighs a temporary shortage of talent and depth.

UNLV continues to win and learn from it, a 74-72 victory over Arizona being the most impressive example yet, given the few among 13,485 at McKale Center who stood on the Rebels’ side.

The road is a different animal. It just is.

But on a night when UNLV shot 37 percent and hit only 5 of 26 3-pointers, it was a junior whose leadership and attitude have been questioned who provided winning guidance.

Willis needs to be two things for the Rebels to succeed — a scorer and tough. He was both here, tying his career high in points (25) while not allowing UNLV to surrender in times it appeared the team’s first loss was close at hand.

Things weren’t great last season. They weren’t even good at the end. The Rebels finished fifth in a Mountain West Conference they were picked to win and were relegated to a National Invitation Tournament field from which they made a first-round exit. If there was much effort and focus as things drew to a close, it wasn’t evident.

The whispers always came back to Willis and whether the Memphis transfer ever really conformed to a team where three seniors (Wink Adams, Rene Rougeau and Joe Darger) took front and center roles. Where the truth existed is anyone’s guess, but they were charges Willis heard.

When things go bad, fingers are pointed, and they constantly were pointed in Willis’ direction last year.

"Honestly, it didn’t bother me," he said. "At that point, it wasn’t my team. It was the seniors’ and we preached all year to let them lead. I tried to let them. I tried to stay in the backseat.

"But we weren’t winning. It was bad. And when we made the NIT, myself and those players (returning this season) told ourselves that couldn’t happen again. I’m a competitive person. I hate to lose. It’s just my nature. Whatever it takes to win, I’ll do it."

He is not the player you tell kids to watch to learn perfect skill technique. You sort of have to take it all with Willis and understand that while there will be nights he forces shots and over-dribbles and just doesn’t seem to fit, there will be others when he uses his 6-foot-4-inch frame to create angles that allow him enough driving lanes to make enough plays that ultimately beat Arizona.

There will be nights like Wednesday, when he scores two points in the first half, then makes 8 of 15 shots thereafter and is a huge difference in another terrific early-season victory.

I’ll say this: Willis is an engaging kid when you get him talking and smiles more than you might imagine. He can laugh at himself — never a bad thing.

I don’t know exactly what went on last year with Willis and those seniors, and it’s true 6-0 and a Top 25 ranking today makes everyone happy, but competitiveness — even if mistaken for frustration and anger at times — is almost always a better trait to have at this level than the opposite.

Toughness is hard to teach and even harder to instill.

Tre’Von Willis has it, for good, for bad, for whatever it might be on a given day. But more times than not, as we saw here, it’s going to benefit UNLV.

"I’m happy," Willis said. "I’m comfortable. We’re a really unselfish team. If you aren’t having fun playing basketball for this team right now, something is wrong."

I still say he acts as if he has never committed a foul.

"Oh, I have," he said, "but I don’t like to admit it for the record. When you foul, you’ve lost the edge.

"And I never want to give an inch to anyone."

Fierce competitors rarely do.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He also can be heard weeknights from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on "The Sports Scribes" on KDWN-AM (720) and www.kdwn.com.

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