Ryan Greene/Las Vegas Sun
Monday, Oct. 26, 2009 | 1 a.m.
Darris Santee wears his soul on his left shoulder.
Don’t expect to hear much from UNLV’s senior center, unless he knows you. And he really must know you. That could take months. Years.
Rebels assistant coach Lew Hill has known Santee since he started recruiting the 6-foot-8, 225-pound forward in high school in Houston. Yes, Hill says, Santee is quiet and easy-going.
“Very easy-going,” Hill says. “You’ve got to pull it out of him a little.”
Check out this photo of Midland College’s 2007 NJCAA national championship team. Among his celebrating and smiling and pointing teammates, that’s Santee in the back to the left.
It looks like he’s waiting for a bus.
Santee’s UNLV teammates have seen and heard the real Santee, the one who jokes and laughs and proclaims to rap like the baddest of anyone from the East Coast hip-hop scene.
“More like Dirty South,” says sophomore center Brice Massamba, who shares a campus apartment with Santee, sophomore guard Oscar Bellfield and Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas.
That trio knows the real Santee, the one who prays before every game, every meal, before he lies down to sleep every night. They’ve seen the Bible, and the prayer books, in his room.
Psalms 27, A Psalm for David, is etched in ink on Santee’s left shoulder in elaborate scroll.
“ … whom shall I fear? … of whom shall I be afraid? … When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell.”
Only God Can Judge Me is written on Santee’s right shoulder.
“That’s important to me, too,” he says. “Don’t worry about what other people think or say about you. God’s the only one who can judge you.”
Hill did not know about the depth of Santee’s religious convictions.
“It’s within himself,” Hill says. “It’s a beautiful thing. I don’t know where he got it from, but he has it. That’s all that matters.”
A slippery slope
Just as he started rolling last season, Santee slipped.
Santee hit double figures in points in three consecutive games, the third in a victory over BYU in Provo, Utah. Then he lost his way in the offense and lost faith in himself.
Over the final 13 games, he scored 16 points. Three times, he didn’t score. Three times, he didn’t grab a rebound. Twice he didn’t play.
“It was really a struggle trying to get him to keep his confidence,” Hill says. “You could see it slowly going away. Sometimes that happens with kids.”
Confidence, says UNLV coach Lon Kruger, is huge for players.
“There’s a fine line there,” he says. “When you’re playing with confidence, everything seems to be clicking. When you’re not playing with confidence, typically you’re not sure. You’re a half step late. It doesn’t quite work.”
Registering 31 points in those three games was actually somewhat of a statement for Santee, since he operates best facing the basket.
Without Matt Shaw, who tore a knee ligament in the summer of 2008 and missed all of last season, and inconsistency from rookie Brice Massamba, Santee was forced into a more standard role down low.
With his back to the basket.
“He’s always been a face-up guy,” Hill says.
By the end of the season, Kruger tossed all of his low-post plans and slipped forward Joe Darger back in at center.
Different player, different person
Pressed about his spiral after the BYU game, six follow-up questions are required to tap into Santee’s feelings about what went wrong in his first season of elite college basketball.
“I think I got mentally frustrated,” he says. “I didn’t really come along. I wasn’t going with the system … I just got confused with what we were trying to do.”
Was it embarrassing?
“Yeah, for me it was,” Santee says. “I feel I could do a whole lot better. It left a bitter taste in my mouth. I want to learn the system more and just come back and have a good year.
“I’m ready to get back into it. I’m mentally in it, so I think I’ll have a good year. I’ll just knock last year out. It’s the past. I’ll move on and just work hard.”
When his game started going south last season, Santee told Hill, Coach, I didn’t know it was like this in Division-I.
Some guys learn the demands and rigors of D-I ball quicker than others, Hill says. Plus, a leaner and meaner Massamba is back, Shaw is healthy and new center Carlos Lopez adds depth in the post.
According to Hill, Santee has a different attitude. He’s a different player and a different person. Totally different, Hill says.
“He’s got more confidence,” Hill says. “He’s more comfortable now facing up and attacking the rim. He can hit the 15-, 17-foot shot, fake and get to the rim, and he’s doing a better job passing the ball.
“He has figured it out. He worked his behind off this summer and fall, and he keeps working and working. He wants to go out with a bang as a senior.”
In two rounds of scrimmages last week, Santee led the Rebels in scoring. After Santee executed a power move for an inside basket, Hill blared “Bulldozer! Be a bully in there!”
With a two-hander in transition, Santee was the lone Rebel that dunked in the FirstLook scrimmage. He’s the Rebel that most frequently dunks in practice.
Bellfield coaxes him to do all the time.
“That brings the opposition’s motivation down and brings ours up, so we can keep it going,” Bellfield says. “I tell him to dunk and he says, ‘Don’t worry, when the season comes I’ll be dunking.’
“He has his confidence back and he’s looking real good. He’s shooting well, playing well and he’s talking more. He’s coming along.”
Santee believes UNLV is more athletic and there will be more dunks, overall, this season.
“It lets defenses know that you’re there,” he says, “that you’ll go strong and they’ll have to man up.”
That served as a certified soliloquy from Darris Santee.
His shoulder tattoos, about fear and judgment, about battling false witnesses rising against him, about having courage and a strong heart and breathing out cruelty, are Santee’s rudders.
He is deeper than many might imagine.
“Yeah,” says Santee, with a brief laugh, “a lot deeper.”