SANTA CLARA, Calif. — At the instant Derrick Jasper makes eye contact with Tre’Von Willis, the basketball players can become mind readers.
UNLV’s junior guards share a rare connection that goes back to early in their high school years.
“We’ve been real close,” Jasper said. “I know most all his moves and he knows most all my moves, so we pretty much know what we’re going to do on the court.”
Jasper, from Paso Robles, Calif., was 15 when he joined Willis’ Fresno, Calif.-based summer team. At first they were teammates and nothing more. Jasper was the quiet type.
Intrigued by his new teammate, Willis approached him one day.
“When I first met him, he didn’t say a word for two weeks,” Willis said. “I finally was like, ‘What’s up with you?’ I was trying to see where his head was. Ever since then, he hasn’t stopped talking to me.
“What’s funny is when you get to know him, he’s really not quiet. He’s just a real cool dude and he’s about business. That’s definitely one of my closest friends.”
Jasper and Willis return to California today — and will have several friends and family members in attendance — as the 24th-ranked Rebels (6-0) meet Santa Clara (4-3) at 7 p.m. The Broncos of the West Coast Conference have won their past two games after a poor start.
UNLV is on a roll after back-to-back victories over Arizona and Louisville, games in which Jasper and Willis played starring roles.
Jasper made a go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:39 to play in the second overtime and Willis tied his career high with 25 points in the Rebels’ 74-72 victory at Arizona. It was the type of game Willis envisioned in the summer of 2008 when he helped recruit Jasper to UNLV.
“I was a pretty big influence,” Willis said. “But I don’t want to steal too much credit. We’re just fortunate to be in this situation. Our chemistry is there.”
Jasper was recovering from microfracture surgery on his left knee and thinking about transferring from Kentucky after two years. He wanted to get closer to home and had Las Vegas on his mind.
Rebels coach Lon Kruger and assistant Lew Hill briefly courted Jasper while he was in high school. Willis, who transferred to UNLV from Memphis in the summer of 2007, reached out to his friend.
“We were texting back and forth and talking to each other, and he was saying he wanted me to come here. Tre played a huge role,” Jasper said. “I told him I was probably going to come here. I kind of always knew I wanted to come to UNLV.
“Tre pretty much convinced me. I knew I wanted to play with him, and I definitely knew I wanted to play under Lon Kruger because I saw the success he had here.”
Jasper, a 6-foot-6-inch point guard, averaged 6.8 points in his first four games for the Rebels. Then he scored 12 against Louisville and had 12 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three steals against Arizona.
“Derrick didn’t play for a year and a half. It’s a case of getting that rust off and getting more comfortable with each game,” Kruger said. “He’s looked a lot more aggressive and was attacking the last couple games.”
Jasper’s improved play is all about his more aggressive mindset, he said, and not at all about his knee. If any doubts lingered about his leaping ability, Jasper flushed those with two soaring dunks — off passes from Willis — against Louisville.
“At the beginning of the season I was kind of deferring to my teammates a little. I was just getting my feet wet,” he said. “There definitely is a difference now.”
Jasper’s desire to leave Kentucky was due in part to his knee, which required surgery prior to the 2007-08 season. He returned and played in 20 games, but he said he came back too soon. He used his redshirt year at UNLV to rehabilitate.
“I felt like I did need a change, a new start. My knee was in pretty bad condition,” he said. “It takes 18 months to fully heal, and some guys never even really heal from it. It’s way more difficult than I thought.
“I’m just lucky to even be playing right now.”
• NOTES — UNLV defeated Santa Clara 78-66 last year at the Thomas & Mack Center. … The Broncos’ slow start this season included an 88-72 home loss to Northern Arizona on Nov. 25.
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907.UNLV VS. SANTA CLARA
WHEN: 7 p.m. today
WHERE: Leavey Center, Santa Clara, Calif.
RADIO: KWWN-AM (1100)
LINE: UNLV -71/2