Published Wednesday, March 17, 2010 | 2:10 a.m.
Updated Wednesday, March 17, 2010 | 4:33 p.m.
- Fans support Rebels as they start their tournament journey
- Notebook: Willis, Jasper hoping to be at full strength in time for Thursday
- Dancin' Again: UNLV headed to OKC as 8-seed, will face Northern Iowa Thursday
- Breaking down the rest of UNLV's pod in OKC
- Las Vegas sports books: Kansas the favorite to win championship
- Despite SDSU's 55-45 triumph, UNLV still confident heading into Selection Sunday
- 2009-10 UNLV Schedule/Results
- All Sun UNLV men's basketball coverage
Willis, a freshman at Memphis in 2007, never got to take off his warm-ups as the Tigers marched their way to the Elite Eight, losing to eventual national runner-up Ohio State.
Stanback, a freshman at UCLA in 2008, received a Final Four ring — which his dad holds on to — before transferring to UNLV that summer. He played 15 minutes of mop-up duty during two blowout victories over Mississippi Valley State and Xavier in that run. In the national semis, he sat and watched for 40 minutes as the Bruins were mauled by Memphis.
Now it's come full circle for the two talents that UNLV (25-8) leans on the most, as the duo leads the Rebels — a team they can both call theirs instead of being in the backdrop — to Oklahoma City.
They'll take the team into battle Thursday as an 8-seed, facing 9-seed Northern Iowa (28-4) at 4:10 p.m. Las Vegas time, as the program makes its third tourney appearance in the last four seasons.
"I was so anxious during the only trip I had (to the tournament), and wanted to make some kind of difference and help my team," Willis recalled. "This time around, I get the opportunity to do that, and as a player, that's all you can ask for — the opportunity.
"Now it's up to you whether you relish it or not."
A leader by nature, Willis has relished just about every opportunity he's been afforded this season, emerging as the Rebels' unquestioned voice following a sophomore year in an out-of-place supporting role behind an established senior class.
He averages 17.9 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game. He's also a hound of a defender, earning both first-team All-Mountain West honors and a spot on the league's All-Defensive team.
Stanback also was on the All-Defensive list and, on top of that, a third team All-MWC honoree. After struggling out of the gates following his redshirt season, Stanback averaged 12.3 points and 6.5 boards per contest in conference play.
But for any big-time college basketball player, this week is what it's all about.
As much as some try to treat an NCAA tournament contest as just any other game, it's built up to be so much more.
There's a finality to it, knowing that the season is over with one loss. There's the dog-and-pony-show aspect of it, with players taking questions at a press conference podium each day in front of a bevy of reporters and cameras, followed by light practice sessions in front of potentially thousands of fans.
Every game is nationally televised, and fans ranging from die-hards to casuals around the country annually will skip classes or cut out from work just to see it unfold.
Willis and Stanback, though, are two of the alpha types who live for it.
"Just the atmosphere," Stanback said, reflecting on his experience two years ago. "Just how much fun we had in making it that far. Just the feeling we had on the court. It was amazing."
Of course, elsewhere on the UNLV roster, there's more NCAA tournament experience to be found.
Shaw, who redshirted last season while recovering from a torn ACL, also was a reserve on the program-changing 2006-07 club, which upset 2-seed Wisconsin in Chicago en route to a Sweet Sixteen berth. He played nine minutes in two games during that run.
As far as game experience, no one has more than junior guard Derrick Jasper, who started a combined three games for Kentucky's tournament trips in 2007 and 2008. However, his status for the week is still up in the air as he's missed the last 12 games with a partially torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee.
All of that considered, many getting their first tourney taste — such as fellow starters Anthony Marshall and Oscar Bellfield — will be following the lead of both Willis and Stanback, as they have for much of the season.
"I think it has some value," coach Lon Kruger said of the duo's tournament experience. "To measure it is hard, but having been there, having an idea of what to expect with how the practices are structured, certainly it's not like they played big minutes in the NCAA tournament. That would be a bigger advantage. But just kind of going through the motions and being around it has some advantage.
"These guys will definitely like that role," Kruger added. "These guys have handled that role well all year."
In their first postseason experience as Rebels during last weekend's Mountain West tournament, Stanback and Willis both showed signs of hitting peaks at just the right time.
While Stanback scored 37 points and grabbed 19 rebounds in the three games combined, Willis was UNLV's hero in a 70-66 semifinal victory Friday over BYU. He scored six of the team's seven points in the final minute on a left ankle he had turned mid-way through the second half.
Despite losing in a sluggish affair to San Diego State, 55-45, in Saturday's title game, UNLV did enough to cement itself in position for an at-large bid into the field of 65. And the Rebels will find themselves in a similar situation as the one they were in the last time Kruger took his team dancing.
The No. 1 seed in their pod again is Kansas (32-2), who is the top overall seed in the tournament. To boot, the games are being played in what essentially will serve as KU's backyard.
That Kansas team in 2008 went on to win the national championship, while the super-talented, super-deep Jayhawks this time are the odds-on favorite to go the distance.
"I think it was frustrating watching us play," Willis said, recalling watching the last loss to Kansas from home as a redshirt. "It just seemed like we needed that one more, or a couple more people. We were a little low on players, We hung around for a long time, but you could tell we got worn down as the game progressed.
"This is a whole new team."
Of course, UNLV has to get past the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season and tournament champions in order to get a potential shot at the tournament's alleged kingpin, who faces 16-seed Lehigh following the UNLV-UNI match-up.
Kruger is no newbie when it comes to being in the tournament, with this being his 12th trip in his 24 seasons as a college coach at four different programs.
He's 8-3 in first-round games, showing that with four or five days to prepare for an opponent his team is as dangerous as any. That includes a 2-0 tournament mark in that department at UNLV.
Again, he's armed with a team that's more than capable of turning some heads, led by two players at the top who are craving a second chance at making a first impression in March.
"Ever since we got put out in the Elite Eight, I wanted the opportunity to play in the tournament," Willis said. "You can definitely look in the guys' eyes and faces and tell that we're ready to try and make some special things happen."