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Willis ready for homecoming

FRESNO, Calif. — At a time when his prevailing emotion could be frustration, UNLV’s Tre’Von Willis has a valid reason for saying he’s “very excited.”

The Rebels are on the road, and reeling from consecutive home losses. But the next game is always the one that matters most, and for Willis, it’s even more meaningful because it’s a homecoming.

When the sophomore point guard leads UNLV (5-2) against Fresno State (2-3) at 7 p.m. today, he will be playing in front of several family members and friends for the first time since he starred for nearby Washington Union High School in 2006.

“I had to get a lot of tickets, something like 18 to 20, and there’s going to be a lot of people supporting me and this team,” Willis said.

He won’t have to look far for a familiar face, even if it’s the enemy. Willis’ older brother, Dwight O’Neil, is a starting senior guard for the Bulldogs.

However, for a slumping Rebels team, the game is not about family reunions and reminiscing.

UNLV has serious business to attend to after losing to California and Cincinnati last weekend in the Global Sports Classic, and Willis is well aware of that.

“We were very disappointed to play two games like that in front of our fans on our home court. It’s embarrassing to lose back-to-back games and let teams come in there like that and win our tournament,” Willis said. “We have a lot to prove right now.

“That left a bad taste in our mouths. We’re going to prove how hard we can get after it on both ends of the floor.”

Willis has made four straight starts at the point, and his performances have steadily improved. He is averaging 9.3 points per game, third on the team, despite a poor first week.

As a reserve in the Rebels’ first three games, Willis shot 4-for-19 and averaged 4.3 points. As a starter, he has shot 14-for-33 and averaged 13 points. He said his shooting was hindered by a slight right shoulder separation that is improving with treatment.

“Every game we play, the more comfortable I feel,” he said. “I’m starting to feel very confident like I did a couple years ago.”

Willis scored 23.4 points per game as a high school senior, and his 2,842 career points were fifth most in California prep history. He chose to sign with Memphis over UNLV, then reversed his decision and transferred after spending most of his time on the Tigers’ bench.

Willis redshirted last season and practiced with the Rebels, but the starting point guard spot that seemed to be his was awarded to freshman Oscar Bellfield in the season opener.

Bellfield played well as a starter before UNLV coach Lon Kruger made a sudden switch to Willis, and Kruger said he expects the two to share the role.

“Right now, we’re going with Tre. I think Tre has played better and better in each game,” Kruger said. “Both have been on the floor quite a bit, and they will be out there together at times. Whoever is getting results is going to be out there a little more. But we’re getting good play out of the point guard position.”

Still, Willis has not handled the position smoothly. He has 22 assists, 18 turnovers and 23 fouls.

“All my fouls are charges, basically. I’ve just got to stay out of foul trouble and avoid charges,” he said.

He made better choices in transition in the Rebels’ 67-65 loss to Cincinnati on Saturday. With just under five minutes remaining, Willis led the break, stopped in the lane and passed over the defense to Joe Darger, who made a 3-pointer to put UNLV up 59-57.

Willis finished the game with 18 points, five assists, four rebounds and four turnovers.

“Tre made a lot of good plays in the Cincinnati game,” Kruger said. “He had great energy and was attacking all the time.”

Willis said Fresno State coach Steve Cleveland “didn’t really recruit me hard” in high school, but he was not upset about it.

“I heard through the grapevine they were saying they didn’t have a chance at me,” Willis said. “I wanted to go away from home.”

NOTES — The Rebels defeated Fresno State 84-71 last season at the Orleans Arena. UNLV led 52-25 at halftime. … Instead of hosting a holiday tournament next year, the Rebels will go to Hawaii to play in the Rainbow Classic in Honolulu.

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

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