ANAHEIM, Calif. - As he reflected on his team's statement victory over Virginia Tech on Sunday night, UNLV guard Tre'Von Willis could only think of one thing that would have made winning the title game of the 76 Classic even sweeter.
"I would have been excited if we got some free gas," Willis said, smiling.
A 71-59 win over the highly regarded Hokies didn't earn Willis a discount next time he fills up his tank, but it did offer an early glimpse of how formidable UNLV can be if he regains his all-conference form. The fifth-year senior tallied a season-high 15 points and played his usual sound defense, propelling the Rebels to a 6-0 start few would have predicted this summer when senior Matt Shaw left the team because of a failed drug test and Willis was arrested on felony domestic battery charges.
Having already plead no contest to reduced charges and sat out two exhibition games and two regular season games, Willis deflected all post-game questions about what he learned from the incident. Instead he steered the conversation toward the pride he felt watching UNLV overcome 30 points from Virginia Tech star Malcolm Delaney to defeat a Hokies team expected to contend for second in the ACC behind Duke.
"I'll tell you it feels good to win a championship," Willis said. "This is my first one at UNLV so far. For me, that's big. We're using this as a start and we're going to try to get better every day."
If the national perception entering the season was that the Mountain West would be a two-team race between BYU and San Diego State, UNLV has certainly nudged its way into the conversation with its blistering start. In addition to the victory over Virginia Tech, the undefeated Rebels also defeated Tulsa and Murray State in Anaheim and upset Big Ten power Wisconsin in Las Vegas earlier this month.
It's a testament to UNLV coach Lon Kruger's eye for talent that the Rebels are on the verge of cracking the top 25 with a roster full of other team's castoffs. Leading scorer Chace Stanback lasted one innocuous season at UCLA before bolting in spring 2008 as a result of a lack of playing time. Starting big man Quintrell Thomas left Kansas under similar circumstances the following year. Willis and versatile wing Derrick Jasper also arrived at UNLV via transfers from Memphis and Kentucky, respectively.
"I feel awfully good for the guys," Kruger said. "This is a veteran group, even though we only have two seniors. It's a group that stayed pretty much intact from last year. They've been through the conference race and the postseason tournament and they did a great job at staying focused in the offseason."
The scariest aspect of UNLV's early success for opponents had been that Willis played such a minor role in it.
Still a step slow after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in August and then sitting out four games, Willis averaged 6.7 points and shot 36.7 percent from the field coming off the bench in UNLV's previous three games. Stanback emerged as the team's go-to scorer, Jasper assumed the role of defensive stopper and sophomore wings Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins also helped pick up the slack.
"Basketball is one of those games that you never know when you're going to lose anybody, so everybody was definitely ready to step up and everybody was preparing to get playing time," starting forward Quintrell Thomas said. "I feel like everybody's preparation in the preseason made the transition smooth."
Maybe the best news for UNLV on Sunday night was that Willis looked more like his former self than he had in his previous three games.
His forays to the rim were aggressive. His jump shot was smooth. And his trademark aggressive defense was one of the keys to the half-court traps and full-court pressure UNLV employed to speed up the tempo of the game and force 18 Virginia Tech turnovers.
Seven-for-9 three-point shooting from Delaney helped the Hokies whittle their second-half deficit to five with just over five minutes remaining, but that was as close as UNLV allowed the gap to get. A pair of left-wing threes from Willis book-ended a game-clinching 10-2 run for the Rebels, increasing the lead to 69-56 with 1:42 remaining.
When the second of those two threes fell through the net, Willis smiled broadly and unleashed a six-shooter celebration. He later hugged each one of his teammates individually as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
"Everyone's playing so well," Willis said. "You can't look at anyone on our team and say they're not playing well, and if there's anyone, it would have been me. I think that I can pick my play up and I think that can be a plus."