Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, Nov. 6, 2009 | 2:05 a.m.
It’s about time UNLV’s basketball players see some fresh faces and different places. Others might say it’s about time they start pushing each other around.
Three weeks of practices and drills and morning sessions and early-evening runs finally end when the Rebels leave town today for a closed-door scrimmage late Saturday morning at Long Beach State
Can’t happen soon enough, based on the tussle between Stanback and Willis late Thursday afternoon inside the Cox Pavilion practice gym.
“Just physical play,” Stanback said with a slight smile. “It’s just ball … nothing at all.”
Willis has always played with an edge and it’s his goal to help carry out UNLV coach Lon Kruger’s orders to play with a more physical tone this season.
Without prompting, Willis brought up the tumble.
“Me and Chace got into a scuffle, but we’re teammates,” Willis said. “That’s why we’re looking forward to Saturday, to try to beat up another team. Yeah, we’re trying to be more physical lately.”
Those were the sentiments of every Rebel.
In fact, junior guard Kendall Wallace sounded prophetic after practice Wednesday night when he said this is the toughest part of the season, right before they’re about to play someone else for the first time.
“It’ll be fun to see where we’re at as a team,” Wallace said, “and what we need to work on.”
Sophomore guard Oscar Bellfield is looking forward to seeing how the Rebels fare on defense against the 49ers, whose star is sophomore swingman Larry Anderson.
“I know our offense will be there,” Bellfield said. “Defensively, a lot of us are working together. As a whole, we’re locking up, getting steals and fast breaks.”
The scrimmage is the de facto start of the season, since the exhibition against Division-II Washburn is Tuesday and the season opener is next Saturday against Pittsburg State.
“Here we go,” said junior point guard Derrick Jasper. “It starts real quick after this scrimmage. Everything will come on real fast, we just have to practice real hard and approach every game like it’s a business.”
Long Beach defeated a roster-shortened San Diego team by a point in a recent 48-minute private scrimmage.
“Learned a lot about our team,” 49ers coach Dan Monson wrote on his twitter page after the session. “Biggest thing we learned is we are not ready yet. Gotta get some help inside for T.J. (Robinson, 6-feet-7 and 210 pounds) and ‘Gene’ (Phelps, 6-6, 220).”
In 1999-2000, Kruger’s last season at Illinois and Monson’s first at Minnesota, Kruger directed the Illini to a 73-59 victory over the Gophers in Illinois and an 89-80 win in Minnesota.
They spoke Tuesday and arranged to play a 40-minute scrimmage, followed by maybe 10 or 20 additional minutes of action.
“Maybe we’ll go over some late-game situations, up three or down three, situational stuff you can do in a scrimmage that you can’t do in a practice or exhibition,” Kruger said. “It’ll be a totally different thing against people we don’t know.”
Yes, Stanback said, it’s about time.
“We’ve been banging into each other every day, and everyone seems to know everyone’s moves now,” he said. “It seems a little boring. Now we get to test ourselves against new people.”
He and Willis had an interesting test Thursday. After they hit the floor late in the fifth and final 5-minute scrimmage controlled by officials, as Willis rose he stared at Stanback, who stared back.
Everyone in the gym seemed to pause to see what would unfold in the very next moment, and Willis ever so slightly cocked his right arm … before standing and walking away.
“He was trying to post me up. I wasn’t trying to have that,” Willis said. “We got tangled up. He fell down and pulled me down. It was kind of hot during the moment, but it’s all fun.
“We laugh on it now. We’re teammates. We love each other. We just look forward to getting after it at Long Beach State.”
The lead official pulled them together to ensure there would be peace for the final 89 seconds of the scrimmage. Afterward, the ref updated the entire squad on the ramifications of fighting in a game this season.
After the practice, Stanback was about to enter a tunnel to walk back to the Rebels’ locker room when Willis, shooting free throws, yelled after him.
“Chace, stop playin’ dirty!” Willis barked as he laughed.
Stanback turned, listened, laughed and walked away.
Both said there was nothing to the episode, that it wasn’t indicative of any sort of rift between them. It was just a heated mini-battle on a squad that needs to get tougher.
That’s directly from Kruger, and Willis agreed. He confirmed that the Rebels got pushed around way too frequently, especially under the boards, last season.
“We were one of the worst rebounding teams in the country last year,” Willis said. “We hardly got any second-chance points. That’s why this year we have a whole new mind frame.”
Of pressing it in practice to toughen the team for the rigors of the fast-approaching season, and if that occasionally spills over into a glare or a push … so be it.
“It sends a message,” Willis said. “We’re fighting for something. I kind of like that Chace fought me and we got into a little scuffle. He got right back up and we kept playing. That’s what teammates are for. We need to pick each other up.”
Even if, at times, they pound each other down to the ground.
“I love stuff like that,” Willis said. “There was a little contact. Maybe we went a little too far; refs had to stop it … but it was refreshing how the coaches looked at us like we were being physical.
“Hopefully, when they watch film (today) they don’t say we weren’t being physical.”