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Rusty Willis still knows how to play

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Rust doesn’t know smarts.

If July arrives and Tre’Von Willis finds himself playing in the NBA Summer League among other drafted or free-agent rookies in search of a job among the world’s best players, it will be as much for his know-how than anything.

He understands how to play, and that’s still important to even those making decisions at the game’s highest level.

It is also a major reason UNLV today is champion of the 76 Classic, having beaten Virginia Tech 71-59 on Sunday night at the Anaheim Convention Center.

The Rebels are 6-0 to start a season that is destined for another NCAA Tournament berth, having defended for three November days here like most teams can’t in March.

UNLV is again good, always well-coached and certainly capable of living to a second week of the NCAAs this season.

But there is this: If the team’s best player today is junior Chace Stanback, its most important one remains Willis.

Not just for his ability and experience, but for how his attitude could influence the Rebels — both good and bad.

He could be the reason for a memorable season and yet also for one that falls short of expectations.

It is what it is.

He could have that big an impact either way.

Willis had by far his best game Sunday since returning from his suspension for pleading no contest to a misdemeanor domestic battery charge, totaling 14 points, two rebounds, three assists and three steals in 31 minutes.

He helped bring calm to an offense at first perplexed how to attack different zones Virginia Tech employed, from a 1-3-1 to a 2-3 to a triangle-and-two to a box-and-one.

Willis played important minutes as the Rebels eventually stopped picking up their dribble early and discovered gaps and lanes to attack.

He did things like draw defenders off the dribble and find teammates for dunks and make touch passes on breaks that resulted in scores and hit 3-pointers over the zone that stretched the margin late and step in front of passes that denied Virginia Tech easy baskets.

Willis forced some action but when you are facing several different defensive looks for the first time in a season, you need players who comprehend opposing tendencies and how best to defeat them.

Willis does.

"This is my fifth year in college," he said. "I’ve been playing a long time and have seen every scenario out there on the floor. I try to use my (experience) to get the team clicking.

"This was a good win for us. They threw zone at us and while we struggled for a stretch, we got it back together. That shows the resiliency of this team."

For the Rebels to be great, Willis must be the player he was Sunday and not the one who while in foul trouble against Murray State in the second round, sat on the bench with a towel over his head showing no emotion as his team rolled to another win.

He has to walk and talk and produce in a positive manner and not go through the motions of a practice following a game in which he played just 15 minutes.

Willis has to be the senior who isn’t just all smiles and talkative after wins, but one who is mature enough to lead by example in the down times that every season presents.

This isn’t last year, when Willis was a first-team all-Mountain West Conference pick and expected to contribute the most on the stat sheet nightly.

UNLV is better this season, deeper.

Players have improved around him. Freshmen have grown into sophomores.

UNLV was the best team here and yet only Stanback (named the event’s Most Outstanding Player) made the all-tournament team, which tells you all you need to know about the Rebels’ versatility.

Willis needs to accept that and thrive because of it instead of fighting it, which comes from leading and not sulking.

"I think (Willis) took a big step tonight in terms of readiness and results," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said.

"His (attitude) has been OK. He wants to play. He’s going to play. He needs to be on the floor and we want him out there. It’s hard to be patient sometimes, which is totally understandable."

Tre’Von Willis is a really good player who understands the game.

If his attitude remains as encouraging as his play Sunday, UNLV is in for a memorable ride.

It is what it is.

He could have that big an impact either way.

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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