SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — On his high school basketball team, Rene Rougeau’s role was to be "basically the garbage man." In his first two years at UNLV, he saw mostly garbage minutes, getting some clean-up duty at the end of messy games.
But he loved every minute of it. Every minute he played for the Rebels was one more than some people ever thought he would get.
Family, friends and the rest — all those who knew Rougeau best — predicted he would make it someday. He was intelligent and motivated and, as he said, "destined to be successful" in college.
Just maybe not as a Division I basketball player.
After his senior year at Etiwanda High School in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Rougeau’s scholarship offers were easy to count. He had none.
"One junior college coach wanted me bad," Rougeau said. "He heard I was coming to UNLV and he actually told people, ‘He’s not going to make it there.’
"People always underestimate the underdog."
Rougeau is no longer the team janitor. The 6-foot-6-inch junior swingman, a former walk-on, is established as the Rebels’ sixth man.
He will play an important role as UNLV (4-1) faces one of its toughest nonconference tests against UC Santa Barbara (5-1) at 7 p.m. today at the Thunderdome.
The Gauchos, picked to win the Big West Conference, are led by 6-6 senior guard Alex Harris, who averages 25.0 points per game.
Harris had 20 points to help UCSB upset the Rebels 79-76 last November. It was UNLV’s only loss in 20 home games last season.
About six months ago, after the departure of five seniors from a 30-7 team that reached the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16, Rebels coach Lon Kruger sat down with Rougeau and discussed the future.
"Coach talked to me and said there’s going to be a lot of playing time, so I need to step in and help," Rougeau said. "Coach has confidence in me. He wants me doing everything."
Rougeau, who did not play in last year’s loss to UCSB, is rare in that he has the versatility to play all five positions. He has defended centers this season, and he will be asked to help defend Harris tonight.
He’s doing a little of everything for UNLV. After five games, Rougeau is averaging 7.0 points and 4.4 rebounds per game, has a team-high 12 steals and is shooting 50 percent from the field. He is sixth on the team in minutes per game (21.0).
What Rougeau does not have is a scholarship. One of the Rebels’ most valuable players is paying his own way through school.
"I’m not really worried about that," he said. "I’m just worried about playing, to be honest."
When a scholarship was available, Kruger said he gave one to Rougeau for a couple of semesters. But Rougeau said finances are not a concern, and Kruger did not have a scholarship available this year.
"I thought Rene was on a scholarship when I first got here," said junior guard Wink Adams, UNLV’s leading scorer at 13.0 points per game. "I heard he was a walk-on and I was saying to myself, he’s got to be one of the best walk-ons in the country."
Rougeau averaged only six points per game as a high school senior. There were three other Division I players on his Etiwanda team, including UCLA point guard Darren Collison, and Rougeau learned how to do everything but score. His high school coach contacted Kruger’s assistants, and Rougeau was given a walk-on invitation.
"He just keeps working to get better," Kruger said. "His energy is great and his attitude is outstanding."
Instead of attending a junior college, Rougeau said he wanted to prove he could make it with the Rebels. He redshirted for one year, played little as a freshman and appeared in 25 games last season.
"I just took a chance," he said. "It’s not the first time I had to sit, be patient and wait my time. Perseverance definitely helps. Believing in myself definitely helps
"I’m pretty sure I’ve shocked a few people. I can honestly say I don’t think some of my family members thought I would be where I am today."
• NOTES — UCSB forward Chris Devine, who was attending the funeral of a friend in Alaska, is expected back today after missing Saturday’s 76-61 victory over Montana State. Devine had 25 points against UNLV last year. … The Gauchos and Rebels have not played at the Thunderdome since UNLV left the Big West in 1996.UNLV Basketball
GAME DAY UNLV AT UC SANTA BARBARA WHEN: 7 p.m. today WHERE: Thunderdome TV/RADIO: LV One (Cox Cable 19); KBAD-AM (920) LINE: UCSB -2