Mr. Willis’ Wild Ride

A year ago, Tre’Von Willis played like he didn’t have a worry in the world. Then everything changed.

There was no hiding the hurt on Tre’Von Willis’ face. The senior guard tried his best to conceal it following UNLV’s loss to Brigham Young on Jan. 5, but as Willis talked to reporters, he looked downward, lips pursed, as if searching for answers. He had made just 4 of 16 shots, and his team had been left in ruins by the dread storm known as Jimmer Fredette. It had been less than a year since Willis had dueled with Fredette for Mountain West Conference Player of the Year honors. Now Willis was nearly a forgotten man, suffering through an uneven and wearisome senior season while Fredette’s first name had grown into both a verb—You got Jimmered—and a noun: Jimmermania.

The loss to BYU was the Rebels’ third in six games, and even though the conference season was just starting, Willis wondered if his final year of college was slipping away from him.

“There’s been a lot of those [moments],” he says. “It’s probably the closest thing to depression that one gets without just totally being depressed and out of it. It’s definitely been one of the toughest years of my life.”

• • •

It’s become one of those overplayed ESPN buzzwords that work their way like wood beetles into the way we talk about sports: swagger. A year ago, Willis was all about the swagger. He led the Rebels to a 25-9 record and an NCAA Tournament bid, and was named first-team All-Mountain West Conference. He averaged 20.3 points per game in conference play and shined brightest against Fredette, scoring 33 points in UNLV’s dominating home victory over BYU.

Following the Rebels’ exit from the NCAAs, Willis seemed in position for even greater success as a senior. Perhaps he would work his way into the All-America conversation. A deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Beyond that—NBA dreams.

But Willis’ entire season—along with his freedom—was put into question when he was arrested June 29 on felony charges for allegedly choking a female acquaintance at her Green Valley apartment. He reached a plea agreement on Sept. 28, pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge, and was required to do 100 hours of community service and undergo 90 minutes of domestic-violence counseling per week for 26 weeks. UNLV coach Lon Kruger suspended Willis for the first four games of the season (two of them were exhibitions).

In the midst of all this, Willis underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in August. He hoped his explosive quickness would return swiftly; instead the knee continued to limit him, month after discouraging month.

“With the season I had last year, I had things in mind that I wanted to accomplish,” Willis says. “And those things took a backseat, starting with the offseason and starting with my health.”

The biggest change of all came last fall. Willis became a father on Sept. 22 when his girlfriend, Erica Helms, a senior guard on the UNLV women’s basketball team, gave birth to a girl, Tremiyah. The whirlwind combination of events caused Willis to re-evaluate his life and try to rebuild his image, including making a conscious decision this year to cover up his tattoos on the basketball court by wearing a T-shirt underneath his jersey.

“I just care about so many other things now,” he says. “I had a closed mind as far as how my life was going. Most of the time I didn’t care what other people thought. It was just about me and what felt right to me. Now I’m open to more things, and I see the bigger picture. Now I’m responsible for another life, but beforehand, little things just didn’t matter. And now little things matter, and you just view things from a different perspective.”

• • •

Willis made his debut this season against Wisconsin on Nov. 20, scoring four points as the Rebels posted their marquee win of the season. All seemed well as they rolled to a 9-0 record, the program’s best start in 20 years. But then UNLV blew a nine-point second-half lead at Louisville and dropped its first game of the year. Worse yet, the Louisville zone defense exposed the Rebels greatest weakness—they couldn’t shoot very well. In the Rebels’ next game, UC Santa Barbara followed Louisville’s lead and used the zone to defeat UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center. Willis made his first start of the year, but scored just 12 points on 3-for-11 shooting.

Willis’ knee has left him unable to plant and drive to the basket for most of the season. His scoring average is down, but perhaps the most telling statistic is that last season he shot 190 free throws, and this year just 93. And his problems affected the Rebels as a whole, with the team struggling offensively for long stretches this season.

“What’s tough is I know what kind of player I am,” he says. “I know what I’m capable of, and I’m not able to do that. It’s been wearing on me, especially mentally. Physically, I know I’m not there, but mentally it’s been wearing on me because I’ve been down on myself and I just feel I’m letting so many others down, along with myself.”

Willis grew more exasperated with his play as the season progressed. “The frustration level with not being able to work on your game, that’s one thing people kind of lose sight of,” Kruger says. “Tre really hasn’t had many stretches where he could really go full out in practice every day. And that takes away from your game a lot if you can’t work, work, work.”

As if having his own game take a step back wasn’t frustrating enough, it was especially galling for Willis to watch Fredette lead the country in scoring and become the front-runner for national player of the year. He didn’t keep his annoyance to himself: Before BYU visited the Thomas & Mack, Willis said Fredette was “supposedly” the best player in the conference. The Cougar star responded with 39 points. Before the rematch in Provo, Utah, Willis said Fredette “doesn’t want to pass the ball. He wants to shoot the ball every single time.” Fredette answered with 29 points and a game-high seven assists as BYU routed the Rebels again.

The loss stung Willis—and it may have kick-started his late-season renaissance. In the weeks following the game, as his knee began to cooperate, Willis played with a new sense of urgency that proved infectious for the entire team. On a late-February road trip to Colorado State and New Mexico—a trip on which the Rebels had a very real possibility of going 0-2—Willis tallied 34 points and 12 assists as UNLV won both games. After another fine performance in a home win over Wyoming, he was named MWC co-Player of the Week. He shared the honor with Fredette.

But perhaps the real proof that Willis was back came in a single dazzling moment during the Rebels’ regular-season finale at Utah on March 5 when he drove nearly the entire length of the court and split two defenders for a layup. The quickness, the cutting ability, the elevation, the aggression—everything that had been missing seemed to have returned.

When Willis—whose stretch run earned him second-team All-Mountain West honors—is at his best, so are the Rebels. “It opens up a lot for other players to get open shots,” says UNLV guard Anthony Marshall. “When he’s 100 percent, we’re a ballclub that gets to it on both ends.”

The Rebels won nine of their last 11 games to finish the regular season 23-7. They enter their first-round conference tournament matchup with Air Force as one of the hottest teams in the conference, and perhaps the nation. And Willis is determined to turn the most difficult season of his life into something he can be proud of.

“I like taking my own fate and putting it in my own hands instead of letting something else or someone else dictate how things are going to go,” he says. “This is my last hurrah, so I feel I need to be the one to step up and say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to do and this is how we’re going to do it.’”

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