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Kendrick progressing into player of leadership caliber

He said it often the first month of this basketball season, said it after the 21-point home loss to UC Santa Barbara, after the close win against Nebraska-Omaha, after not getting it done against visiting Arizona State and Illinois, after playing tough but falling at Arizona.

Dave Rice kept saying his UNLV team would stay together, kept hinting that his was a locker room not about to crumble and split no matter the amount of adversity the Rebels encountered.

Translation: He didn’t envision the same sort of internal problems that found his team last season again dividing the group.

What most were thinking: He believed, hoped, that Jelan Kendrick could prove himself a team player.

The Rebels continued their tour through the no-NCAA-Tournament-resume-building-victories-in-sight portion of their non-conference schedule Sunday evening, beating Santa Clara 92-71 at the Orleans Arena as part of the Las Vegas Classic.

UNLV plays Mississippi State in the event’s championship tonight at 7:30, a team from the Southeastern Conference with a Ratings Percentage Index of 185 and whose best win of the season came Sunday against not-so-intimidating South Florida.

Kendrick is a junior guard who has followed his team’s lead in that he is much better today than a month ago, in that the more he plays, the better his production and decisions become.

This isn’t the same UNLV as Nov. 12.

This isn’t close to the same Jelan Kendrick.

The Rebels don’t need him to be great; they need him to be consistently good. He was that Sunday, scoring 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting in 27 minutes.

He has been that for most of the past four games.

“Jelan doesn’t get enough credit for what he does on the floor,” Rice said. “There is no doubt he (arrived at UNLV) with some baggage, and he will be the first to talk about it. But he has owned up to his responsibilities. We don’t have a natural leader on this team, but Jelan is probably the guy who has stepped up and done a great job of that for us. He has been a big part of this team staying together through some tough early losses.

“Whoever the guy is that people talk about at his previous stops, I’ve never seen that guy. He has been great. His attitude has been terrific. He’s the representative for our team on the student-athlete advisory committee and comes back and tells me about the meetings he has with other athletes. He comes to my office and we talk about world issues.”

I’m assuming between chats about the global economic collapse, terrorism and climate change, Rice has relayed to Kendrick these views: That no matter how he came to this point, from McDonald’s All-American to Memphis to Mississippi to Indian Hills Community College, UNLV has offered him a clean slate on which to chart a new and positive course.

It’s hardly an original story, a player whose ability is over-hyped by the never-ending recruiting machine of websites and message boards and analysts who charge for their opinion.

The majority then assumes such a player will make an immediate impact.

Doesn’t always work that way.

Kendrick wasn’t good to begin the season. Forced everything. He was likely trying too hard and when that happens, a player can appear selfish. He was sloppy with the ball and didn’t shoot it all that well.

He was out of the starting lineup after two games and has been part of it just five of 11. But he can contribute in several ways. A key steal here, another assist there.

If he can make shots as he did Sunday, UNLV becomes much deeper at a critical spot.

“Every player on this team is my brother,” Kendrick said. “There is no jealousy, no in-fighting among us. We just love to go out there and play. My character is 1,000 times better now. I’m just glad to be here and glad to still be playing the game that I love.”

On his biography in the team media guide, Kendrick is asked what advice he would give to young people.

His answer: “On particularly rough days, when you are sure you can’t endure the obstacles that life has put in front of you, remind yourself that your track record for getting through rough times is 100 percent … and that’s pretty good.”

He has lived up to those words here and is thriving for it. In turn, UNLV basketball is all the better.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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