Willis plans stronger leadership role on lagging Rebels basketball team

LARAMIE, Wyo. — If the road UNLV senior Tre’Von Willis is on feels familiar to him, it should. He was on a team that traveled this way two years ago.

Willis was a sophomore during the 2008-09 season when the Rebels, led by three senior starters, dissolved into a major disappointment and took a nosedive into the National Invitation Tournament.

"There was no leadership on that team as far as keeping everybody together," Willis said.

A lack of strong leadership has been one of several factors contributing to the decline of another UNLV basketball team. Recognizing that, Willis plans to take charge and try to change the season’s direction before it dead-ends.

"I’m a senior. This is my last go-round in college," he said. "I haven’t been as vocal lately as I was in the past. I’ve kind of been down a little bit.

"I’ve got to keep being a leader and getting in guys’ faces. I’ve got to bring leadership and get these guys ready to play. I feel like that’s my job."

In the middle of the Mountain West Conference pack, the Rebels (15-5, 3-3) look to avoid taking another step back when they face down-and-out Wyoming (8-11, 1-4) at 7 p.m. today at the Arena-Auditorium.

The Cowboys are coming off three consecutive lopsided losses to Air Force (72-51), Utah (68-51) and Texas Christian (78-60).

UNLV coach Lon Kruger said he’s making at least a minor lineup shakeup by reinserting sophomore forward Quintrell Thomas as a starter in place of junior Brice Massamba.

Kruger said Willis, who missed two of the past three games with a sore right knee, will play but won’t start.

Willis played 25 minutes off the bench in the Rebels’ 63-62 victory over New Mexico on Saturday. He finished with nine points, three steals and four turnovers.

The 6-foot-4-inch guard hurt the knee in a late-game collision with Massamba at San Diego State on Jan. 12. Willis appeared a step slow Saturday, and he said that was the case.

"I’m not as fast, not as explosive," he said. "I can’t really drive the ball and get by nobody. I just felt like I had to play and bring some kind of effort. Kruger kept me out there, and he trusted me.

"It’s like a stiff leg at times. It just gets so sore, and it’s not really swelling. I’m eight times as slow in practice than I am in games. The adrenaline definitely helps."

Willis said the knee is making only slow improvement, and his physical limitations have caused him to not be as vocal a leader. He is getting "treatment around the clock" and feels an urgency to not sit out more games.

"Honestly, I don’t think I have no choice. I’ve got to do what I can to be out there with my teammates," he said. "It’s real frustrating.

"I had some things in mind I wanted to do (this season). I’m still positive. It doesn’t bother me at all as far as numbers."

Willis’ senior year started ominously when he was arrested last summer and dealt a four-game suspension by Kruger.

He has started just seven of his 16 games and his scoring average of 11.8 is far below his 17.2 average as a junior. Willis’ 3-point shooting (18-for-70, .257) also is suffering.

UNLV opened 9-0 this season. In 2008-09, UNLV was 17-4 before fading to a 21-11 finish and a first-round NIT exit. That late slide included an upset loss at Wyoming.

Willis wants to ensure his senior season doesn’t end in similar despair.

"A light had to go on at some point. The leadership is stepping up," he said. "It’s a matter of bringing more fight.

"We’re a confident team. We’ve got some old guys, including myself. We know what it takes to win."

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

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