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Rising Rebels stay grounded

Junior guard Tre’Von Willis is attracting awards, and UNLV is back in the national rankings. Everyone likes to be appreciated and recognized, but Willis also knows the importance of perspective.

It’s the middle of February, too soon in the basketball season for a celebration of any sort.

"We have seven big games left. Right now, all we’re focused on is New Mexico," Willis said. "We’re headed in the right direction as far as our mentality and our focus.

"I just want our team to realize what’s at stake. It seems like every time we know what’s at stake and what we’re playing for, we come out hard and really play well."

The Rebels, on the strength of a five-game winning streak and an 88-74 blowout of Brigham Young on Saturday, moved up to No. 23 in The Associated Press poll Monday.

UNLV (19-4, 7-2) is in a three-way tie with No. 15 New Mexico (21-3, 7-2) and No. 17 BYU (22-3, 7-2) atop the Mountain West Conference. The Rebels and Lobos will collide at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Thomas & Mack Center and break one of those ties.

The MWC has three ranked teams for the first time, a fact UNLV coach Lon Kruger said is significant only for the moment.

"That’s fantastic. The league having three teams in there is great exposure," Kruger said. "It will be nice if all three are ranked a month from now. That’s a lot more important."

Willis is coming off the finest performance of his career. He had 33 points, eight assists, five rebounds and no turnovers in 38 minutes against the Cougars.

As a result, Willis was named the ESPN.com Player of the Week, and he and New Mexico junior Darington Hobson were voted the conference’s co-Player of the Week.

"The growth of his game across the board, not just scoring, has been terrific," Kruger said. "Maybe most importantly, Tre’s getting his team ready to practice every day and focus on the next game, and that’s another step in the maturing of his game."

Willis scored 20 points in the Rebels’ 74-62 victory at New Mexico on Jan. 9. But the star of that game was another junior guard, Kendall Wallace, who burned the Lobos for 21 points on seven 3-pointers.

"I don’t plan on getting as many open looks as I had in that game, but you never know what’s going to happen," Wallace said. "We know we’re going to get their best shot because they’re trying to get revenge."

Wallace has started the past two games as a replacement for Derrick Jasper, who tore a ligament in his left knee. UNLV has rolled over Wyoming and BYU by a total of 42 points in those games.

"It’s nice to be back in (the rankings) again," Wallace said, "but we can’t settle for what we’ve done so far."

NOTES — Sophomore point guard Oscar Bellfield bruised his left knee in the second half against BYU and missed Monday’s practice. "He’ll be fine. It was just precautionary to give him that extra day to rehab it and recover," Kruger said. … Wednesday’s game will mark the third time in league history that two ranked MWC teams play each other.

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907.

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