Dec. 10, 2009

By Anthony Oliva III

When AAU teammates Tre'Von Willis and Derrick Jasper were in high school, they dreamed about the possibility of playing at the same college.

Recruiting letters poured in from top programs all over the country to get these two sought-after prospects. So, with an abundance of choices, they ended up going their separate ways - Willis to Memphis. Jasper to Kentucky.

Fast-forward to the present, and the long-time friends are once again in the same backcourt. They both transferred to UNLV, and the possibility of playing together has once again become a reality.  

"It's kind of crazy that we ended up back together because originally we were talking about going to college together anyway," Willis said. "It didn't work out with Memphis, so I ended up going there by myself and he ended up at Kentucky. I left Memphis, and his knee surgery didn't go too well, so we started talking again that it'd only be right for us to reunite."

They've reunited. And in a big way. The two juniors two have led UNLV to its best start since the 1990-91 season, when it went to the Final Four. The transfer-heavy Runnin' Rebels, who have a total of eight transfers on their roster, are 7-0 and ranked No. 18 - UNLV's highest ranking in the AP poll since 1993.

On Nov. 28, the Runnin' Rebels defeated then-No. 16 Louisville, 76-71, and Willis had 16 points, one below his season average, to go along with nine assists and six rebounds.

"Tre'Von has been our most consistent player," UNLV Head Coach Lon Kruger said. "He's a good scorer. He likes to take on a challenge defensively, and he rebounds the ball very well for us. He gives us good, all-around play each night."

In its next game, UNLV then ousted Arizona, 74-72, when Willis, the team's leading scorer, scored 25 points, and Jasper hit a crucial 3-pointer with 1:39 left in the second overtime.

"Derrick is a clutch performer," Kruger said. "He likes tough situations. He likes having the ball in his hand to make plays for either himself or for others. He's a great competitor and really explosive off the dribble."

Jasper ranks third on the team in scoring behind Willis and sophomore guard Oscar Bellfield. He averages eight points a night, and is also adding nearly four rebounds and over three assists a game, while being second on the team in steals.

While Willis and Jasper's relationship is rapidly helping UNLV become a contender, the friendship didn't forge quite as quickly. Willis is the outgoing one. Jasper's a little more soft-spoken. And, when playing for their AAU team, EBO, out of Fresno, Calif., Jasper was the only player on the team not from the Fresno area. He normally had to take a bus to get to practices and games, and he didn't know anybody on the team at first.

"(Jasper) didn't say a word when he first joined the team for the first couple weeks, and I just kept thinking to myself, `Man, what's wrong with this guy?'," Willis said with a laugh. "But, I ended up talking with him and messing with him one day, and he hasn't stopped talking to me since. That's how the friendship started and we've been friends ever since."

This friendship is a big reason they're back together wearing the same uniform. Willis transferred from Memphis after his freshman season, so, when Jasper transferred after his sophomore year, Willis was already in the UNLV program. Jasper said the two sent text messages daily when Jasper was contemplating transferring.

"I had a couple of choices when I was leaving Kentucky, but I always kind of knew that I wanted to come to UNLV and play under Lon Kruger," Jasper said. "I also knew my buddy Tre'Von Willis from high school was there and I really wanted to reunite with him."

Last season, Willis was in his first action for UNLV and he scored just under 12 points a game. That team finished with an unsatisfying 22-11 record and lost in the first round of the NIT. That team also graduated five seniors, including three starters, but this year UNLV has actually gotten better, in part due to Willis and Jasper playing so well together.

"There's just so much chemistry," Willis said of him and Jasper. "We can just look at each other and know what both of us are going to do and what we're thinking. He's a very competitive person. He brings it out in me, I bring it out in him, and it trickles through the team."

Willis and Jasper are no stranger to success together. The AAU team they played on once also had the Lopez twins, Brook and Robin, who starred at Stanford and are now in the NBA.

"We had a great run for a few years," Jasper said of EBO. "We won the Adidas Super 64 here in Vegas (in 2005), and I remember Tre'Von going off for about 29 points in the championship game for us."

Willis and Jasper, however, aren't the only transfers making a significant impact on this program. Chace Stanback, who transferred from UCLA, is also starting. The 6-food-9 forward is averaging over six points, nearly six rebounds and is leading the team with 2.3 steals per game. The Runnin' Rebels also have 6-foot-8, 245-pound forward Quintrell Thomas, who transferred from Kansas, on their roster. Thomas will be eligible to play next season.

"Chase, Derrick, Tre'Von and Quintrell Thomas are all guys that we recruited in high school," Kruger said. "We didn't get them the first time around, but when they called and expressed some interest in coming here when they decided to transfer, we were very pleased to have them the second time around."

Darris Santee and Steve Jones, who are both key contributors off the bench, and Tyler Norman and Todd Hanni are the other Division I and junior college transfers on UNLV's roster.

All the transfers mean a steady influx of talent, a flood that's given UNLV excellent depth. Eleven players average at least 15 minutes a game for the Runnin' Rebels.

UNLV's depth ensures that it will almost always have fresh legs in the game, and it's shown in their high-energy defense: a team has not shot better than 40 percent in a game this year against UNLV, and the Runnin' Rebels have forced 125 turnovers en route to a plus-7.1 turnover margin, good for fifth in the country.

"We like to make teams very uncomfortable," Willis said. "We know if we do that and run out and get immediate buckets that the game will come to us and we'll have a very good chance at the end of the game to be the victor. "

This team has done a terrific job of not only getting many different players involved, but also infiltrating new players and transfers into the system without a hitch. Jasper says the key to this team is that it is "extremely unselfish". UNLV is 12th in the nation in assists, averaging 17.9 a game, and third in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio.

"I think this team is so team-oriented," Willis said. "We play for each other. Sometimes guys play for themselves or just what gets them going, but we get each other going as a team. We all get along and I think we compliment each other so well."

There's no better example of this than Willis and Jasper themselves. And, their friendship, which brought them together at UNLV, is bringing this program to levels it hasn't seen in quite some time.