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Willis shoulders Rebels’ load

Eleven players are consistently seeing the floor for UNLV, and such a deep rotation is rare for a college basketball team three months into the season. It was coach Lon Kruger’s plan all along, and he’s sticking to it.

In November there were questions about which one of the 11 would be the Rebels’ leader. On and off the floor, junior guard Tre’Von Willis has provided the answer.

“Tre has given this group a lot of security in terms of how he has lined up and played each game,” Kruger said.

Nearing the midpoint of the Mountain West Conference season, the Rebels’ records (17-4, 5-2) are identical to a year ago.

Of course, this is when UNLV began to fall apart last year, losing seven of its final 11 games. Willis, and his deeper supporting cast, appear ready to make a stronger stretch run.

“I do think Tre’s personality has become more significant on this team,” assistant coach Greg Grensing said. “He’s a little more responsible for this team. He knows he’s being counted on, and he knows he’s got to set an example.”

Grensing said the Rebels — and senior leaders Wink Adams, Joe Darger and Rene Rougeau — got stagnant and “played on the perimeter almost exclusively” in the final two months of last season.

UNLV has developed a semblance of an interior presence now, and Grensing said he sees “more focus” with a younger team.

Willis is averaging a team-high 17.4 points, and shooting 49 percent from the field and 87 percent on free throws. As a sophomore, he averaged 11.4 points while shooting 38 percent from the field and 73.7 percent at the line.

“I have to pick my game up a little bit more,” said Willis, who scored 20 points or more in the Rebels’ first six MWC games. “My expectations are high for this team. I’m anxious to see what we look like in the last nine games of the conference.”

The loss of junior guard Derrick Jasper, out approximately five weeks with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, will test the strength of UNLV’s numbers.

“As compared to last year’s team, there’s more people who are capable of contributing on given nights, and that definitely can help us a great deal,” Kruger said.

“I think the depth is great. It has helped us win some games. These guys work like crazy every day in practice. We go on the road, we go to the airport and every one of them knows they’re going to be playing.”

Willis missed one game in December because of injury. Each of the other 10 players in Kruger’s rotation has played in all 21 games, and all average more than 11 minutes.

Everything has started with Willis, and here’s a look at the next 10 in the Rebels’ rotation:

CHACE STANBACK — At the end of November, Stanback was scoring 6.4 points per game. He has raised that average to 10.4, and in the past six league games he has averaged 16.

“We did expect this out of Chace. That’s the reason why I can’t say he’s a surprise,” Willis said. “We knew he was a scorer and a shooter. We knew he was going to put ’em up, and now they’re going down for him, so it’s coming at the right time.”

Stanback, a 6-foot-8-inch sophomore forward, transferred from UCLA and was expected to make an immediate impact. After an ankle injury and a slow start, he’s making midrange jumpers while defending and rebounding better.

“We have maybe the best 15- to 17-foot shooter in the conference,” Grensing said. “We’ve got to get more from Chace because there’s still a lot to give.”

Oscar Bellfield — The sophomore point guard has been steady and sometimes superb, leading the team with 102 assists. He has slumped a little lately, though, scoring in double figures only once in seven conference games to drop his average to 9.4 per game.

“I think Oscar’s getting ready to shoot the ball better and be more aggressive with it,” Grensing said.

KENDALL WALLACE — In Jasper’s absence, Wallace will likely move into the starting lineup for UNLV’s game at Wyoming on Wednesday. The junior guard is hitting 39.8 percent from 3-point range.

Wallace is largely responsible for two victories. He made seven 3s at New Mexico on Jan. 9 and four second-half 3s to rally the Rebels past Air Force on Tuesday.

MATT SHAW — The 6-8 junior forward is improving as a low-post scorer and defender, and his ability to step outside and make 3-pointers (team-high 41.5 percent) always makes him an asset. He started 11 games from mid-December to mid-January, and averages 6.7 points. He needs to be a stronger rebounder.

DERRICK JASPER — The target date for his return is March 6, UNLV’s regular-season finale. Before injuring his knee Tuesday, Jasper was the Rebels’ best rebounder, and his athletic ability helped the team in a variety of ways.

But the 6-6 junior guard, a transfer from Kentucky, has not asserted himself enough on the offensive end. Jasper has not scored in double figures since Dec. 23, a stretch of eight games.

DARRIS SANTEE — A 6-8 senior, Santee has played stronger in the low post and made solid contributions in limited minutes (12.3 per game). He averages 4.6 points on 64.4 percent shooting.

ANTHONY MARSHALL — Acrobatic dunks are what the freshman guard from Mojave High does best. He also can drive to the rim, defend and help as a rebounder. But he obviously has lost confidence in his jumper. Marshall is 1-for-21 from 3-point range, and has not attempted a 3 in the past six games.

“We kind of mutually agreed he will shoot those later, and he will in his career become a good 3-point shooter,” Kruger said. “He can do so many other things that we still benefit from having him on the floor.”

BRICE MASSAMBA — It could be that Massamba, a 6-10 sophomore center, is beginning to blossom. Grensing sees it coming.

“Brice has a lot of ability. He can do a lot of things. As his confidence grows, I think people are going to see more of those things being done. He’s getting a lot closer,” Grensing said. “There’s a lot of things in a big guy that he has that most bigs don’t bring to the table.”

Massamba passes well, sets solid screens and defends down low. His rebounding results are weak. But he is 15-for-17 from the field in league play, evidence that he’s progressing offensively.

JUSTIN HAWKINS — The freshman guard probably deserves more minutes, and he will get more while Jasper is out, according to Kruger. Hawkins had 10 points in 14 minutes in a victory at Colorado State.

STEVE JONES — Several UNLV fans question why Kruger likes to play Jones, an offensively limited walk-on transfer from Arizona State. The 6-1 senior guard, averaging a rotation-low 11.1 minutes per game, has played more than seven minutes in only one MWC game.

“He is getting his minutes in support of Chace at the four spot. None of the other young guys play that spot,” Kruger said. “He works really hard defensively, and he can cover any of the four perimeter spots.

“His attitude is great every day. He has great enthusiasm and gives great effort, and his teammates really appreciate what he does.”

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0353.

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