UNLV guard Tre'Von Willis has played three games since returning from a season-opening suspension, and it's obvious he's not the same player as he was a year ago.
At least not yet.
Willis – who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in August – is a bit heavier, a step slower and a tad less explosive than the player who ranked second in the Mountain West Conference in scoring last year with 17.2 points per game.
None of it, though, has seemed to matter for UNLV.
The Runnin' Rebels are 5-0 not because of Willis, but because of the players who have stepped up in his place. Whether it's Chace Stanback hitting a winning 3-pointer against Wisconsin, Derrick Jasper posting a double-double against Tulsa or Quintrell Thomas snagging some key rebounds against Murray State, UNLV is getting contributions from players up and down its roster.
Ten Rebels are averaging 10 minutes or more for coach Lon Kruger, who hopes his team's depth is a factor again Sunday when it plays Virginia Tech in the championship game of the 76 Classic in Anaheim, Calif.
"They're athletic, long and talented – and they're well-prepared," Kruger said of the Hokies. "We know how tough it's going to be."
Virginia Tech players and coaches probably feel the same way about UNLV.
Three of the Runnin' Rebels' starters are transfers from other Division I schools. Stanback, who averages a team-high 17.2 points, began his career at UCLA. Thomas spent a year at Kansas and Jasper played at Kentucky.
Then there's Willis, a Memphis transfer who is averaging 21 minutes off the bench. In September, Willis pleaded no contest to a reduced misdemeanor charge related to a domestic incident in June. Kruger suspended him for two exhibition games and two regular-season games.
Making matters worse for Willis was that he was unable to practice during the fall after having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.
"Basketball, my whole life, has been an escape for me," Willis told the Las Vegas Sun. "I've never had to rehab so much. I've never had to sit out this many practices."
Willis hopes to be back to full strength soon. In the meantime, guards Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins have done their part to step up on the perimeter. Marshall is averaging 8.8 points and 3.4 assists. Hawkins made a huge steal – and then a pair of game-clinching free throws – with eight seconds remaining against Wisconsin.
"Hopefully," Kruger said, "we'll continue to get better."
(Last week's rank in parenthesis.)
1. Memphis (5-0) – The Tigers are learning to share the ball. (1)
2. San Diego State (6-0) – The Aztecs are 6-0 for the first time since 2006-07. (2)
3. UNLV (5-0) – No matter the obstacles, winning is routine for Lon Kruger. (4)
4. BYU (6-0) – Not surprisingly, Jimmer Fredette made the biggest shot in Saturday's one-point victory over St. Mary's. (7)
5. St. Mary's (6-1) – The Gaels absolutely embarrassed Texas Tech in a 20-point win Friday. (9)
8. Temple (3-1) – Thursday's loss to Cal may knock the No. 21 Owls out of the Top 25 rankings. (5)
9. Virginia Commonwealth (4-1) – Was the victory over UCLA truly an upset? (NR)
Keith Benson, Oakland – The 6-foot-11, 225-pound Benson continued with his monstrous run in Saturday's 78-70 overtime victory against Austin Peay. Benson scored 22 points and snared 22 rebounds in a win that improved the Golden Grizzles' record to 3-3. The future NBA draft pick is averaging 19 points and 12.8 rebounds on the season.
Randy Bennett – It's amazing that a school from a Big Six conference hasn't plucked Bennett away from St. Mary's. Year after year, the Gaels are one of the top mid-major teams in the nation. This season is no different. On Friday, Bennett's squad trampled a mid-tier team from a BCS conference in Texas Tech. One night later the Gaels came within a point of upsetting No. 23 BYU. St. Mary's has also defeated St. John's. Bennett's teams have won 28 games in each of the last two seasons.
San Diego State's upcoming schedule – We'll learn a lot more about the Aztecs over the next 10 days. Steve Fisher's team – which has already defeated then-No. 11 Gonzaga in Spokane – plays host to St. Mary's on Wednesday and Wichita State on Saturday. Then it's off to Berkeley, where San Diego State plays Cal on Dec. 8.
Eli Holman, Detroit – The former Indiana forward – who gained national notoriety for throwing a potted plant across Tom Crean's office – is faring well at his new school. The 6-10, 255-pound Holman is averaging 17 points and 11 rebounds for the Titans, who are coached by former Hoosiers assistant Ray McCallum. In Friday's win over Albany, Holman had 27 points and 15 boards.
Butler – As if a 15-point blowout against a mediocre Louisville squad wasn't bad enough, Butler on Saturday lost to an Evansville squad that went just 9-21 in 2009-10 and has already dropped a game this year to Middle Tennessee State. One season after advancing to the national title game, the Bulldogs may have a tough time making the NCAA tournament.
Ricardo Johnson, Ohio – Johnson was ejected from Friday's game against Kansas for tackling Jayhawks guard Elijah Johnson, who had a clear opportunity for a breakaway dunk. “I thought it was a cheap foul,” Kansas forward Marcus Morris said. “I felt like, after that, it became personal.” Apparently so, as Kansas went on to hammer the preseason MAC favorite 98-41.
Dayton – The Flyers embarrassed themselves in Saturday's 68-34 loss to Cincinnati – a team it defeated by 15 points in last year's NIT. Dayton was down 42-19 at intermission and then gave up 14 points to start the second half. Bad, bad loss by Chris Wright and the Flyers.
Rice gave No. 20 Texas all it could handle before losing 62-59 in Austin on Saturday. Tamir Jackson (15 points), Arsalan Kazemi (13) and Cory Pflieger (12) each scored in double figures for the Owls, who fell to 3-3. Rice's three losses have come by a combined seven points … Anthony Gurley is averaging 21.2 points for a Massachusetts team that is 6-0 … St. Peter's pulled off one of the more head-turning wins of the non-conference season when it defeated Alabama 50-49 in the Paradise Jam … Wesley Witherspoon is averaging 15.4 points and shooting 65.5 percent from the field for Memphis … Creighton freshman Doug McDermott, the son of head coach Greg McDermott, leads the Bluejays in scoring with 14.4 points per contest … Florida International – which only won seven games last season under first-year coach Isiah Thomas – is 3-1 … Michael Loyd, who was one of BYU's top players last season before transferring, is now averaging 14.3 points for Midwestern State, a Division II school in Texas.
THREE TO WATCH
Richmond at Old Dominion, Wednesday – The Monarchs – whose only loss is a three-point setback against Georgetown – will be facing one of their toughest challenges yet in Richmond. The Spiders beat Purdue on Saturday and are good enough to contend for the Atlantic 10 title.
St. Mary's at San Diego State – The Aztecs have already defeated Gonzaga in Spokane, but St. Mary's is playing great basketball right now. This could be one of the season's top non-conference games involving non-Big Six teams.