LARAMIE, Wyo. — No insult intended to junior guard Kendall Wallace, but when he’s in the starting lineup for UNLV, it’s probably because of bad news. In this case, it’s another injury.
Wallace started six games in December while Tre’Von Willis, the Rebels’ leading scorer, was bothered by ankle and back pains. When Willis recovered, Wallace returned to the bench.
A more serious injury has sidelined Derrick Jasper, who will miss about four more weeks with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee.
"That’s a big blow, but other guys will have the opportunity to step up there," coach Lon Kruger said.
Wallace will step in as a starter when UNLV (17-4, 5-2 Mountain West Conference) faces Wyoming (9-12, 2-5) at 7 p.m. today.
Kruger said he promoted Wallace because he’s a veteran and it’s a road game. Freshman guards Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins are also expected to see increased playing time.
The Rebels have been off since Jasper was hurt against Air Force on Jan. 26, giving Kruger time to plan changes in the rotation. Jasper, a 6-foot-6-inch junior, was one of the team’s top rebounders.
"I think it should be a wake-up call for us because (Jasper) was a big part of this team," Willis said. "He was very versatile, and he did a lot of things for us.
"In order to win ballgames, we’ve all got to step up in his absence. It’s going to be hard. It might be a dogfight every game."
Jasper, who averaged 6.7 points in 21 starts, was a major asset to UNLV on the defensive end. Wallace is not a complete liability as a defender, but he helps most as a 3-point shooting specialist.
"You learn from everything," Willis said. "In a way it might be good for (Jasper), and in a way it might be good for the team. We’ve got to realize what we have and how hard we’ve got to play. We can all raise our game up a little bit."
How the injury could be good for Jasper remains to be seen, but maybe he will come back stronger from the experience. Jasper’s absence could eventually benefit the Rebels by opening a window of opportunity for Marshall and Hawkins to develop, making the team that much deeper when Jasper does return in early March, barring complications.
Kruger said he might experiment with putting two post players — such as 6-10 Brice Massamba and 6-8 Matt Shaw — on the floor together, something that has not happened this season.
But Wallace, Marshall and Hawkins stand to gain the most.
"Justin has played well," Kruger said. "He will probably pick up more additional minutes of those three because of Derrick’s injury, and he’s ready to do that."
Hawkins scored 10 points in 14 minutes in the Rebels’ 80-72 victory at Colorado State on Jan. 20. Three days later in a victory at Texas Christian, Hawkins went scoreless in six minutes.
If any team in the conference should be able to absorb the loss of a starter and continue to win, it’s UNLV. Kruger has used an 11-man rotation, now reduced to 10.
Wyoming, which is not as deep or talented, will be down one starter and possibly two today.
The Cowboys lost sophomore forward Afam Muojeke to a season-ending knee injury Jan. 20. Muojeke, the team leader at 16.8 points per game, was the MWC Freshman of the Year.
Sophomore center Adam Waddell is a game-time decision with a left ankle injury. Waddell had 13 points and 22 rebounds in a victory over Utah, but sat out Wyoming’s 70-63 loss at Air Force on Saturday.
The Rebels lost in two of their past three trips to Laramie, including a 77-68 setback last February.
"We’ve got to focus more than we usually do," Willis said. "Last year we went there and we weren’t ready. When you’re not ready, it’s always bad news in an opposing team’s gym.
"I feel pretty good about our season so far. But I feel we’ve let a couple games slip. We haven’t reached our potential."
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907.GAME DAY
UNLV VS. WYOMING
• WHEN: 7 p.m. today
• WHERE: Arena-Auditorium, Laramie, Wyo.
• TV/RADIO: The Mtn. (334), KWWN-AM (1100)
• LINE: UNLV -7 1/2