Following UNLV’s third trip to the NCAA Tournament in four years, and virtually every major contributor returning to the program as well as a couple of big men added to the mix, the prospects for the 2010-11 season looked extremely promising for Rebel fans. Then came the offseason.
Star guard Tre’Von Willis was arrested on felony charges of domestic battery and grand larceny, forward Matt Shaw lost his final year of eligibility for failing a drug test, and sharp-shooting guard Kendall Wallace was lost for the season when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during a pickup game.
“This past offseason we had a couple poor decisions, and that affected not just them individually but it affects the whole program,” coach Lon Kruger says. “But you can’t change that. We’ve now got to line up and learn from that and move forward.
“Most teams at this time of year have the expectation of going to the NCAA Tournament, and that should be an expectation we have. … But we’ve got to work hard to do that.”
The return of Willis, the Rebels’ leading scorer last season at 17.2 points per game, is a big part of that equation. The senior reached a plea agreement and received a three-game suspension (including exhibitions), however he still hasn’t been able to participate fully in practices after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in August.
He expects to be ready to play after his suspension, though, following the Rebels’ season opener at home against UC Riverside on Nov. 12.
“This is the most athletic and longest team we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Willis says. “We might be a little further along, as far as preseason. We’re all pretty excited around here.”
Perhaps the biggest strength for UNLV is the number of interchangeable parts on the roster. Besides Willis, the Rebels also possess talent in the backcourt with junior Oscar Bellfield (9.3 ppg); senior Derrick Jasper (6.7 ppg), who looks fully recovered after suffering a season-ending knee injury in January; and sophomores Anthony Marshall (5.3 ppg) and Justin Hawkins (3.3 ppg).
In the frontcourt, juniors Chace Stanback (10.7 ppg) and Brice Massamba (4.6 ppg) will be aided with the addition of 6-foot-11-inch redshirt freshman Carlos Lopez and 6-8 sophomore Quintrell Thomas, a transfer from Kansas. Freshman swingman Karam Mashour has shown promise in the preseason but could redshirt this year.
“This group is very versatile,” Kruger says. “A lot of guys can move around. The wings are very interchangeable, capable of rebounding the ball and taking it in transition. They don’t have to worry about getting it to the point guard necessarily.”
One of the lingering issues for the Rebels is outside shooting. Shaw and Wallace combined to hit 41 percent from behind the arc last season, while the rest of the team combined to shoot 30 percent, with Marshall going just 1-for-23.
“I don’t know that we’ll have anyone that scores in the way [Shaw and Wallace] did,” Kruger says. “Collectively we’ll have some guys step forward and shoot the 3 better than we did a year ago. But they’ll have to score in other ways, too.”
Rebounding was another Achilles’ heel at times for UNLV last season, but the addition of Thomas and Lopez should help shore up that deficiency. UNLV will need to be more physical if it wants to challenge San Diego State, BYU and New Mexico for the conference title.
“The difference among those four teams is really pretty small,” Kruger says, “so it’s a matter of who takes care of the details the best and who executes the best.