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October 30, 2014

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Blassingame tickled to be a Rebel

1) Can Marcus Banks be replaced?

The aggressive point guard will be missed, perhaps sorely, if some combination of Jerel Blassingame, John Winston and Michael Umeh don't come close to replacing his defense, drive and determination. 2) Will J.K. Edwards remain free of injury?

He had better, because he's the only true low-post presence coach Charlie Spoonhour has on his roster after the debacle that forced the Rebels to decline a scholarship offer to JC center Chris Adams, whom they had recruited for 18 months.

3) Is Demetrius Hunter going to go out with a bang, like fellow hometown product Banks?

Hunter says the Achilles' problems that have plagued him in the past will be non-issues by the start of the season, and a strict offseason workout routine has him in the best shape of his life. To become scary on offense, he needs to hone that mid-range jumper.

4) Can new wing Romel Beck live up to his billing as an outside-shooting ace?

UNLV assistants rave about the rail-thin, 6-foot-7, 185-pound Beck's ability to shoot from long range. If Blassingame plays a lot, Beck will capitalize since those two played together for two years at L.A. City College.

5) Should Marquette transfer Odartey Blankson be expected to make an impact in his first season as a Rebel?

At 6-7 and 220 pounds, Blankson is the biggest Rebel, after Edwards. Blankson has drawn wide eyes, from many players and assistants, for the top condition he has displayed in recent individual workouts. It is imperative for him to be a bull in the post to alleviate the pressure that will undoubtedly fall on Edwards.

Four seasons ago, Jerel Blassingame visited Las Vegas to watch fellow Brooklyn native Trevor Diggs play in a basketball game for UNLV.

Blassingame marveled over the Thomas & Mack Center and the Rebels. Not having played in high school, however, made his thought of one day donning a UNLV uniform an extravagant pipe dream, at best.

After obtaining his GED in California and excelling for two seasons at L.A. City College, Blassingame said he couldn't believe his blessings as he prepared to start practice with the Rebels on Saturday.

With his junior college experience, he might be a favorite -- however slim -- to replace the sturdy and stingy Marcus Banks at point guard, too.

"I'm so excited," Blassingame said before a recent individual workout at the Mack. "From not playing high school ball ... I've never pinched myself so much. It's a dream come true.

"When I was here (in '99-00), I knew I wanted to be here. And now I'm here. Watching them run and Billy Bayno coach, I never thought I'd be back here. And here I am."

Blassingame will be battling freshman roommates John Winston and Michael Umeh in what third-year coach Charlie Spoonhour's staff believes will be heated competition at the point until the Rebels open their season Nov. 21 at home against Delaware State.

Sixth-year UNLV women's coach Regina Miller also opens practice Saturday, and her team's season opener is also a Nov. 21 home game, against Centenary.

Spoonhour said Blassingame might have a slight edge, with his junior college experience.

"He's played two years of very good basketball at a high level," Spoonhour said. "But the other two have played well, too. Their teams were successful. Going into a year, you try to have a blank page. You put guys out there, and it works out the way it's supposed to."

Blassingame, Winston and Umeh each professed to be team players and vowed to support whoever earns the starting nod.

"I'm not going to back down from it," Winston said. "I'm always ready for challenges. For me to be a freshman and get the job here, that would be a great thing. But if I don't get the job, I won't (sulk). I'll keep working hard."

Although Umeh became close with Winston when both visited UNLV during the same weekend during the 2002-03 season, when they forged a pact to become Rebels, he said all three will be unselfish.

"Since we're a team and good friends, we'll support each other," Umeh said. "If things don't go our way, we can't get into little selfish things. If that happens, we'll be getting away from the team.

"We have to stick together. You always have to prove what you can do, and it will be a big battle. Everyone will work hard and wants to play, and everyone's anticipating how it will unfold."

Banks, whom the Boston Celtics nabbed in the lottery of the last NBA draft, left an indelible impression at UNLV.

He averaged 20.3 points, 5.5 assists and more than 36 minutes a game last season, shooting 51.4 percent. With 91 steals, he was as pesky as all-time UNLV defensive whiz Greg Anthony.

"Marcus, he was here to score," Blassingame said. "I can score, but I look to pass. Scoring is second. Those are big shoes to fill, but I'm up to the test. I'm not trying to be better than Marcus, I'm just trying to come in and get wins."

An allergy to academic work, and stronger desires to hang out with girls and his buddies on the street, found Blassingame spending more time outside Redirection High in Brooklyn than inside the building.

"Being immature," he said.

The invaluable direction he received came from Tommy Turner, whose Big Apple Sports company assists prepsters in finding, and getting into, colleges.

Blassingame worked for Turner, and Turner worked on Blassingame, directing him in workouts in area gyms and convincing him that he could be reborn as a student.

"He said, 'Don't worry about it. We'll get you in a school, as long as you work on your game.' And my opportunity came," Blassingame, 22, said of L.A. City. "I was ready, and I made the most of it."

In two seasons, L.A. City won 66 of 77 games, including a state championship last spring, with the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Blassingame running the floor. He won MVP honors as a sophomore at the state tournament.

"Jerel is a smart point guard," Winston said. "He's fast and makes good decisions. Mike is more of a scoring point guard, more of a '2.' Me? I mostly look for the other person first. I like to get everyone involved."

Winston (6-3, 205) has a shot put-like hitch in his jumper, which a UNLV assistant coach called "broken." But he has played with some elite figures, most notably LeBron James on the Oakland Soldiers traveling team two summers ago.

Umeh (6-2, 185) helped Hightower High, outside Houston, go 34-3 last season.

"As long as we win," Blassingame said. "You can expect a lot of defense from me, hitting open shots, finding guys and pushing the ball every time the opportunity is there. My thing is to win."

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