Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tre'von Willis Retrospective - Finale

2010-2011 Season
Sports is a place of eternal optimism, every season all teams start 0-0, and as the NCAA tournament grows bigger, we’re seeing that in college basketball it can be anyone’s time to shine regardless of province or pedigree, tradition or dollar signs.

This season was supposed to be Tre’von Willis’s swan song, his senior campaign where he would build on all of the offensive and defensive potency that would be the guy whose senior season was better than Wink Adams, and Marcus Banks before him. Not only was Willis set to capitalize on his previous success, but he was set to do it in the most competitive MWC ever, with BYU and SDSU returning fierce teams with names like Fredette and Leonard. Not all intended things come to pass, so goes UNLVs 2010-2011 season.
The pre-season started without the on-court presence of Tre’von Willis, hampered by recovery from knee surgery, as well as the 3-game suspension. From the look of Tre, when he did make his return it was clear that the suspension cost him very little in-terms of meaningful court time and was nullified by the surgery recovery. Unfortunately for Willis and the program, not a game this season would go by without a commentator mentioning the domestic violence conviction in the off-season.
This situation would necessitate others stepping up in Willis’s absence. The roster this year included Oscar Bellfield, Todd Hanni, Justin Hawkins, Derrick Jasper, Carlos Lopez, Anthony Marshall, Mychal Martinez, Karam Mashour, Brice Massamba, Mike Moser (red-shirt), Tyler Norman, Chase Stanback, Quintrell Thomas, Kendall Wallace (red-shirt), and Tre’von Willis.
What exicited the staff as well as the fans was the incoming players who had waited their red-shirt year or were jumping right in as newcomers. People wanted to see the ‘big-man’ Kansas-transfer Quintrell Thomas, Findlay Prep’s Carlos Lopez, and the Israeli import – Karam Mashour. Unfortunately for the Rebels, Matt Shaw was finished due to the failed drug test, and Kendall Wallace injured his knee in a pick-up game. These guys were our best 3-point threats the previous season – gone. Again, optimism beats cynicism, and the upside was undeniable.
Until Willis would recover, Anthony Marshall would play shooting guard in his place, and actually did a fine job at it. The rematch of Washburn’s near loss last year was anything but, the Rebels rolled them 88-53, the way it should be. Reb’s rolled over Grand Canyon, UC Riverside, and Southeastern Louisiana, all expected.
The first important test of the mettle of this season’s Runnin’ Rebs was against the 25th ranked Wisconsin Badgers, somewhat of a rivalry game as we often play them in football and bested them on our way to the sweet 16 a few years back. This was Willis’s first game back, and the rust showed. He went 2-7 in 23 minutes of play. The Rebels were, and had been playing top-notch defense, and behind 25 pts from Stanback, 18 points from Bellfield, and a game winning steal and free-throws from Justin Hawkins, the Rebels won 68-65. The next test would be the 76-Anaheim classic, and Stanback was an unstoppable offensive threat. Offensive production from 5-6 players per game shooting outstanding percentages was the story of the tourney, and Stanback was named MVP of the tourney after the Rebels downed the ACC’s Virginia Tech.
At 6-0 the Rebels were nationally ranked at 25/24 and played savage defense and reigned three’s as if they were free-throws. The Rebels blew out Illinois State in an away game, and then UNR. This propelled UNLV to #20/19 nationally. Jasper was a major offensive component for the Rebels, and anyone on any given night could have the hot hand. During the run, Willis had not approached his 17.2 ppg of the previous season until December 11 (but on only 25% shooting). Willis’s offensive potency had dissipated and that threshold of 17 points was reached only 7 times the rest of the season. Willis’s shooting percentage, in 2009-10 nearly 48% a game had dropped to 43%. He would average 13.1 PPG on a team that seemed to lose confidence midway through the season, fell in love with a three-ball that wouldn’t fall, and failed to play the fierce defense that won them the Anaheim classic. 
The Louisville road game and preceding home lost to UC Santa Barbara were the tears in UNLVs cloak of invincibility. Nobody got down on the Rebels for losing to 24th ranked Louisville in their house, but the effort against UCSB surprised everyone. UCSB shot 9 of 19 on 3-pointers while UNLV hit only 6 of 29 of its 3s. Willis was responsible for jacking up 7 of those tries, and only making one. Missing shots was contagious; call it courage, shooting your way out of a slump, or stupidity but the Rebels just kept on letting them fly. Needless to say – the national ranking was gone once the next poll came out.
Luck was a friend to the Rebels when we visited Kansas State. Two of their top players were suspended for ‘impermissible benefits’, announced right before game time – and taking the Wildcats out of their routine. Even though ranked #11, this was not the same team that earned that ranking, and UNLV should not only have beaten them - we should have destroyed them. Willis led all scorers with 16, and was perfect from the FT line. Willis’s plus/minus in that game was -1, which is negligible. More dramatic + - stats came from the Louisville game where he was -15 and the first matchup with BYU where he was -21. On the whole for the rest of the season, Willis was in positive territory and even impressive (+20 vs TCU, +18 vs Utah (last game of season), +15 vs Air Force in the MWC tournament).  One thing about plus minus stats, they make more sense over a long time, and if looked at in the short run do not account for the shortcomings of other players while you’re on the floor, or a hot streak by the other team.
Midway through the season injuries revisited Willis. The knee that he had surgery on was re-aggravated against SDSU, and he sat during a two game stint where the Rebels faced Air Force and then Colorado State. The Rebels survived a scare from the Falcons, but were unfortunately embarrassed on our home court by the Rams. This was one of two bad losses during the season, the other being to UCSB earlier.
Up to this point in the season, the Rebels had played well without Willis, and well with him. They had also now played poorly with and without him. Something had to give, the Coaches green light to shoot their way out of a shooting slump was not working, and every game seemed doomed within the first 10 minutes when the Rebels started digging holes. UNLV won a lot of ugly games, and unfortunately lost two ugly games against a beatable SDSU. The Rebels languished while the national media celebrated MWC darlings San Diego State and BYU, propelling each into the top 10.
In the middle of the conference schedule, just after the ugliest game in many years against Air Force (thankfully, a win), Lon Kruger stripped the team of their UNLV gear during practice. He said the players were not representing UNLV, and did not deserve the honor. Willis said during the change, "We can't keep going through these games not fighting to get what we want on the offensive end," "We're letting defenses dictate too much and we're reacting instead of attacking and us making them react to what we're doing." Many credit the psychological effect of that maneuver for focusing the Rebels to finish the season with a win streak, avenging the CSU loss and wining both New Mexico games.

Tre’von’s nemesis Jimmer – Over the years that Willis was a player for the Rebels, he had a notable accomplishment – he stopped Jimmer Fredette. BYU had not won vs. the Rebels in as many years as Fredette played there, a glaring omission for the top player (by far) on a top 10 team. Willis said before the first meeting of the season, "They've got a preseason All-American and supposedly the best player in the conference on the other team, so that's gonna be nothing but fun,". The result of the game may have made Willis look foolish for providing ‘bulletin board material’ but up to this season Tre’von had every reason to believe he had a special knack for shutting down Jimmer (to some extent).  Here is Jimmer’s stats in all of the BYU UNLV meetings while Tre was here:
2008-09 –
1st Meeting; 19pts on 40% shooting
2nd Meeting; 13pts on 35.7% shooting
2009-10 –
1st Meeting; 7pts on 20% shooting
2nd Meeting; 21pts on 26.7% shooting
3rd Meeting; 30pts on 35% shooting
If anyone can keep Jimmer under 40%, they know how to play good defense. Willis kept him in the 20%’s for several games. Willis knows defense, Willis prior to this season earned the right to trash talk Jimmer, whether it was wise or not probably doesn’t matter. Jimmer has had as good of a season as any college basketball player ever has, Willis’s talk probably was a non-factor. This seasons Jimmer's stats:
2010-11 –
1st Meeting; 39pts on 48% shooting
2nd Meeting; 29pts on 42.9% shooting
We didn’t get a chance to play BYU after they lost Davies to a sexual indiscretion. But lets be real about this, it’s a lesser accomplishment to beat a team when they’ve lost a key player. Surely SDSU wasn’t overly proud of themselves when they finally bested the Cougars in the MWC tournament – it was a different team.
mething else changed within the Runnin Rebels and continued from the point of the shooting woes to the tournament. Derrick Jasper became as offensively potent as Dennis Rodman post-Pistons. He stopped looking for his own shot and became a non-shooter. Here is a basic minutes / points chart for Jasper:

The offensive talent that was a key factor early in the season was gone before the new year. Jasper’s other statistics, experience, and ‘intangibles’ kept him in the game, although sometimes out of the starting lineup. You’ll see by this chart that he still could be relied upon for rebounds and assists and rarely turned over the ball.

The problem with having another guard out there who doesn’t look for their own shot, is that the defense stops concentrating on that player and doubles their efforts on the teams best offensive threats. At this point in the season (conference schedule) Tre’von Willis was regaining his old form. Its safe to say that Jasper’s pass-first thought process may have made defending UNLV much easier, and made things more difficult for shooters such as Willis and Stanback. I take no fault with Jasper, he re-hurt his knee in mid-December, and if he didn’t have the confidence to take a shot, he probably would have missed the shot. It was just one of the other frustrating facets of the 2010-11 season that revolved around shooting the ball.

The MWC Tournament
UNLV cruised through Air Force and met the ever beatable SDSU in the Semi’s. Many predicted UNLV to win, and in fact the odds makers had called it a draw or SDSU by one. Tre’von Willis put forth more minutes in that game than any other Rebel (37 mins) and put up a healthy 19 pts (42.9% shooting), 3 rebs, 3 blks, 3 stls – Willis 2009-10 like numbers. The sequence at the end of the game was a heart breaker, the misplaced pass from Bellfield which led to the SDSU bucket. The 5 seconds left play by Willis that was poorly drawn up and executed, failing to find a wide open Thomas under the rim and settling for a 25 ft contested 3 point attempt.

NCAA Tournament
In previous years, UNLV would have been waiting on the edges of their collective seat to see whether the bubble had burst. This year was different, we were good enough of the season to be counted in. Talk had UNLV as high as a 5 or 6 seed, in the end 8 was the fate. Scheduled to play an underachieving Illinois in the Kansas bracket was a losing proposition, but hope prevails – it always does. Many of us believed our wildly inconsistent Rebels could make it past Illinois – no problem, and then through Kansas’s Morris twins and into the Sweet 16 once again. Wishful thinking, but its anyone’s game in the big dance. Illinois showed the Rebels what they thought of our defense, and McCamey and Davis showed us what NBA prospects look like. It was a sound beating, what President Obama would refer to as a ‘shellacking’. Willis shot poorly, re-injured his knee and ended with 5 points only playing briefly in the second half. Some of our players tried to take on too much, others too little. The ‘X variable’ of shooting bit the team in the ass, UNLV shot 38.9% whereas Illinois shot 59.6%. It was never close, and garbage time officially started with 7 minutes to go. Willis, with a damaged knee, could only look on from the bench and finish out his collegiate career with a towel on his head. Illinois earned the right to be the team beaten by Kansas. A first round exit was the fate that was destined for any team that would shoot as poorly as we did. Optimism persists.
Tre’von Willis, like the impact players who donned scarlet and grey before him, was a dominate force in his three years with the Rebels. His accolades will be hard to top, but there will be those who try and must succeed. Willis tried to be better than the players that came before him, he tried to be better than the player he was a season ago. The players who try to fill his shoes will aim to be better than Willis - it's the nature of the game. Provided that his knee injury isn’t serious, his determination to play at an elite level will serve him well as his career moves forward beyond the Las Vegas valley, perhaps overseas. UNLV’s proud fans will continue to appreciate Willis, and watch his future with interest and hope. Willis, I would assume, will look back at his days on campus and in the uniform with fondness and nostalgia, because he was a big part of something special for a good part of his youth. Hopefully Tre'von is a better man for being a Rebel, and UNLV is better for having him.  

Good luck to Tre'von Willis, and thank you for your hard work!

Total Games in 2010-2011: 33
2010-11-12UCR 41, UNLV 85---
2010-11-17SELU 56, UNLV 92---
2010-11-20WISC 65, UNLV 682342-728.60-00-20.011250034
2010-11-25TUL 71, UNLV 8025123-837.54-4100.02-366.701131113
2010-11-26MURRAY 55, UNLV 691542-450.00-00-20.002211014
2010-11-28VT 59, UNLV 7131145-1145.51-250.03-742.911233012
2010-12-01UNLV 82, IllSt 512383-1030.01-250.01-616.703331000
2010-12-04UNLV 82, NEV 7023115-771.40-10.01-250.005521114
2010-12-08BSU 72, UNLV 7532144-850.04-4100.02-366.732543141
2010-12-11UNLV 69, Lville 7725175-771.46-875.01-250.001121013
2010-12-15UCSB 68, UNLV 6229123-1127.35-683.31-714.360644023
2010-12-18SUU 50, UNLV 721783-933.30-02-633.314520033
2010-12-21UNLV 63, K-State 5934166-1346.24-4100.00-40.013420022
2010-12-30CMU 47, UNLV 7327155-1145.55-683.30-30.010152112
2011-01-05BYU 89, UNLV 7736144-1625.04-4100.02-825.043721022
2011-01-08TCU 49, UNLV 8330227-1450.07-7100.01-425.016735013
2011-01-12UNLV 49, SDSU 553294-1136.40-01-714.311242022
2011-01-15UNLV 64, AF 52---
2011-01-19CSU 78, UNLV 63---
2011-01-22Lobos 62, UNLV 632593-837.52-2100.01-425.002223041
2011-01-25UNLV 74, WYO 6530176-1154.52-2100.03-742.913451042
2011-02-02UTAH 54, UNLV 673672-922.23-560.00-20.012363003
2011-02-05UNLV 64, BYU 7825153-1127.37-887.52-728.601131032
2011-02-09UNLV 94, TCU 7934238-1172.74-4100.03-560.010142032
2011-02-12SDSU 63, UNLV 5735135-1241.72-2100.01-520.004421022
2011-02-15AF 42, UNLV 4926132-540.09-1090.00-20.013440013
2011-02-19UNLV 68, CSU 613793-1225.02-450.01-425.032581012
2011-02-23UNLV 77, Lobos 7440259-1369.22-2100.05-683.300044034
2011-02-26WYO 77, UNLV 9028155-862.52-450.03-560.024630063
2011-03-05UNLV 78, UTAH 5828125-1145.51-250.01-1100.007730132
2011-03-10AF 53, UNLV 6936206-1154.56-785.72-366.707782014
2011-03-11UNLV 72, SDSU 7437196-1442.95-683.32-540.003333030
2011-03-18Illini 73, UNLV 622151-616.72-2100.01-425.020240012

Las Vegas Sun

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