ANAHEIM, Calif. -- UNLV had a forgettable offseason, right? The Rebels’ star player was charged with domestic battery and suspended, a senior was forced to leave the team after testing positive for a banned substance following the NCAA tournament, and their best 3-point shooter tore his ACL and will miss the season.
But take a look at the late-November version of this team, and you see intensity in their faces. Postgame is when the wide grins can finally be revealed.
After three dominating wins in four days and a suffocating defensive effort in a 71-59 wrecking of a talented Virginia Tech team on Sunday night, the 76 Classic championship is theirs. That the Rebels are off to a 6-0 start following a tumultuous summer did not seem to surprise coach Lon Kruger, who is loving the resolve he is seeing out of his players.
“They do a great job of staying focused,” he said.
Take Tre'Von Willis, for example. He had 14 points, three assists and three steals, playing a season-high 31 minutes following his four-game suspension (including two exhibition contests) for pleading no contest to a misdemeanor related to a domestic incident. Asked what he learned from his offseason troubles, he sidestepped the question.
“Basketball, basketball, basketball,” Willis said of what he would discuss.
Very well then. What’s with the unleashing the six-shooter celebration after draining a 3-pointer in the final moments of the game?
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said with a smile. “I don’t think I’ve celebrated yet this year.”
The scary thing for UNLV opponents, though, is that Willis is coming off the bench. While he was the team’s top scorer and defender a year ago, this season’s Rebs are getting along just fine with him as merely a solid contributor while he gets in better game shape following a season-opening layoff.
It was tournament MVP Chace Stanback who led the Rebels with 17 points and eight rebounds Sunday night and used his intensity, length and dependable jumper to take over all three games. The Los Angeles native had his coming-out party as family members made the drive and wore matching T-shirts bearing his name.
Meanwhile, Quintrell Thomas scored 14 points. The Kansas transfer gives the frontcourt a 6-foot-8, 245-pound presence that the team could have used last season when it went to the NCAA tournament and got knocked out by Northern Iowa in the first round.
As for the starting backcourt, it combined to dish out 14 assists. Sophomore Anthony Marshall, Willis’ replacement in the starting lineup, had 10 points and four rebounds. Junior Oscar Bellfield had four points and four rebounds. Senior Derrick Jasper led the team’s defensive effort.
Against Virginia Tech, the Rebels stepped up their press and forced 18 turnovers. On one play, three players swiped at the ball as the Hokies’ Manny Atkins was on the ground, forcing a change of possession.
Reigning ACC scoring champ Malcolm Delaney racked up 30 points on 9-of-14 shooting, yet UNLV still won by 12 and appeared to frustrate him with its on-ball pestering.
“We had 18 turnovers and were 9-of-21 from the free throw line,” Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. “We can’t play like that.”
Who can play with the Rebels? They’ll now be considered one of three challengers for the Mountain West title and could -- rather, should -- join San Diego State and BYU in the rankings this week. It’d be only the second time in the conference’s history that three teams were ranked at the same time.
So for the players who exhorted their fans’ “RE-BELS!” rally cry inside the Anaheim Convention Center after the buzzer sounded, there was plenty of reason to celebrate. Stanback pointed to his family in the stands as he collected his MVP hardware.
And Willis appears perfectly fine being part of the supporting cast.
“I missed four games,” Willis said. “That’s a lot of games. At the same time, everyone’s playing well. You can’t look at anyone on our team and say they’re not playing well. I think if it’s anybody, it would be me.”
America, you’ve been warned.