Taking control

Willis comfortable in leadership role as UNLV prepares for March Madness

Tre’Von Willis has been working overtime to make sure he’s at the top of his game.

There have been late nights when the UNLV junior guard has tracked down a janitor to open the gymnasium doors and turn on the lights for him. Willis polishes his ball-handling skills and often runs through a demanding regimen that includes taking more than 3,000 shots from all over the court.

Not even Rebels coach Lon Kruger realized Willis was putting in the extra work at night, twice a week. Willis can’t just lie around and watch TV. There’s too much to accomplish on the court.

UNLV is 22-7 heading into its regular-season finale at home against Wyoming on Saturday, March 6, and might need to at least reach the championship game of the Mountain West Conference Tournament next week to be selected for the NCAA Tournament.

Willis, as the heart and soul of the Rebels, knows how much his team feeds off him, how much his teammates look to him for direction. A deep run into March depends on Willis, and he wants it no other way.

“Really, all I try to do is show the guys how much urgency we need and how hard we have to play, and how tough we have to be,” Willis says. “Sometimes, it’s the smallest things. I definitely try to lead the team, whether it’s on defense or hustling on offense.”

Willis has made his biggest contributions on offense. He is averaging 20.3 points per game in conference play, including a career-high 33-point performance in an 88-74 home rout of Brigham Young on Feb. 6. Overall, he leads the Rebels with 17.6 ppg, up from 11.4 last season, and he has boosted his shooting from the field from 38 percent to 48 percent, and his free-throw shooting from 74 percent to 85 percent.

“I can’t ever remember a guy improving his shot in a year like he has,” former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian says. “Last season he was a sketchy shooter, up and down. This season he’s been so consistent. His game has been tremendous.”

UNLV’s first-round defeat at Kentucky in last year’s National Invitational Tournament after falling short of the NCAA Tournament stung Willis like a thousand bees. “That wasn’t fun,” he says with a dour expression.

Last season was Willis’ first as a Rebel after transferring from Memphis, and he often took a backseat to seniors Wink Adams, Rene Rougeau, Joe Darger and Mo Rutledge. But things are different this year.

“He has really come a long way,” Kruger says of Willis. “He’s really matured and his game has really matured. In the last few weeks, he’s seeing even more of the big picture, in making sure each teammate is playing well and playing with confidence, which is a whole other level for a young player.”

Willis overslept and missed practice a couple of times last season, but now he starts every day with leadership vows, showing how far he’s come since arriving in Las Vegas. When the Rebels regrouped for spring drills and summer pick-up ball last year, Willis quickly stepped into a leadership role.

“I’m very different,” he says. “At first, when I came here, it was more about me and what I’m doing. Now, I have a lot of guys to worry about, one to 12, every day. I’m taking things on my shoulders and digesting them, getting everyone involved and demanding everyone’s presence.”

Including his own—even if that means some late nights.

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