Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011 | 2:15 a.m.
According to the media members who cast the votes, BYU guard Jimmer Fredette was the Mountain West Conference's top player entering his senior season.
Given his production as a junior, it was hard to argue.
UNLV's Tre'Von Willis, who in the last two years has defended and perplexed the Cougars' star better than anyone in the league, doesn't hand him the honors as easily.
"They've got a preseason All-American and supposedly the best player in the conference on the other team, so that's gonna be nothing but fun," the Rebels' senior guard said in reference to Wednesday's monster of a conference opener at the Thomas & Mack Center. "I try to make him earn everything he gets. Like I said, he's got all of those accolades, but he's gotta come in and prove it.
"I take wonderful pride in my defense with whoever I'm guarding, not just him."
Still, the extra boost Willis gets from this matchup multiple times per season is written all over his face when he talks about it. He gives a smile when the words 'BYU' or 'Fredette' are brought up in a question, then chooses the answer carefully.
Never one to publicly talk smack on an opponent, when it comes to the Rebels' biggest rival in the Mountain West, it's as close as you'll ever hear Willis get.
Making it acceptable, though, is the fact that since arriving at UNLV, he's backed it up.
Willis has drawn the assignment on Fredette for the bulk of their meetings, and in five games against UNLV in that span, the Rebels have proven to be the BYU star's toughest league foe to crack.
Since taking a prominent role for the Cougars at the start of the 2008-09 campaign, Fredette is 1-4 against UNLV. In those games, he's averaged a so-so 18.0 ppg, shot 32.4 percent from the floor, 33.3 percent from deep and has 15 assists compared to 14 turnovers.
The one BYU win over UNLV in that time was last year's conference opener, when the Cougars prevailed in Provo, 77-73, with Fredette sitting much of the second half while battling mononucleosis.
The sixth clash between Fredette and Willis, who last season was also a first team All-MWC performer, is on the horizon. No. 15 BYU (14-1) and No. 25 UNLV (12-2) will tip at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Mack, where the Rebels have knocked off the Cougars on eight straight occasions dating back to 2005.
All of Fredette's numbers have stayed pretty much the same from a year ago with the exception of his scoring, as he's averaging a career-best 24.1 points per game.
His shooting percentage of 47.5 remains consistent with the rest of his career to date, but he's also attempting roughly three shots more per game than a year ago, when Fredette helped carry the Cougars to the NCAA tournament's second round.
The load has increased following the loss of offensive stalwarts Jonathan Tavernari (graduation) and Tyler Haws (two-year mission) from last year's team. Some of the talent around him has struggled to hit full stride so far, making Fredette even more of a focal point.
Willis isn't yet matching his numbers from a year ago, when he was a very real challenger to Fredette for league Player of the Year honors. (17.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.5 apg, in 2009-10; 11.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.0 apg this season). However, he's now coming back into his own physically following off-season knee surgery and a four-game suspension to start the year.
According to Willis, the game plan for guarding Fredette and making him as inefficient as possible remains the same.
"You've always got to have a hand up over the ball," he said. "You can't relax, that's basically the key. He's so good at changing his speeds that if you relax, he may make it seem like he's going to run some offense and then he'll just shoot it. If you relax on him he's got that quick trigger."
Bellfield still sore, but pressing on
UNLV junior guard Oscar Bellfield is still battling soreness in his right wrist, which he jammed on a fall against Southern Utah on Dec. 18.
Since then, the Rebels have played twice, and he's played a team-high 67 minutes in those two games. In games and practices, he's participating with a heavy tape wrap over the ailing area.
"I really just played through it and tried not to focus on it," he said. "And actually, after it gets loosened up, I can't really feel (the pain) as much.
"I'm taking care of it, icing it, playing through it, knowing that it's gonna hurt a little bit, but you don't let it affect you."
Bellfield is no stranger to fighting through nagging injuries.
Last season, he suffered a painful bone bruise in his right knee against BYU on Feb. 6, and despite having to sit out some practice time, played in the team's remaining 11 games.
In the two games since hurting his wrist, Bellfield is 6-of-16 from the floor and 4-of-8 from long range with eight assists and seven turnovers. He hit the clinching trey against Kansas State on Dec. 21 and three late daggers from outside against Central Michigan on Dec. 30.
Future of UNLV-BYU series still unclear
UNLV and BYU in recent years have formed one of the MWC's most vicious rivalries.
Whether that series continues after this season, with the Cougars moving to the West Coast Conference for all sports outside of football, is not yet determined.
"We haven't talked about it specifically," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said of himself and BYU coach Dave Rose. "Certainly, we'd like to keep it going at some point. I don't know about here in the near future because of all the conference realignment. You don't know how many conference games we've got, how many non-conference games we've got on the schedule, so that's a little bit up in the air for us, anyhow.
"But at some point in the future, we'd love to get it going again."
The players who have helped stir the pot in the series — including those who won't be around past this season — agree.
"I'd like to see it because it's a rivalry," Willis said. "Both schools don't have much liking for each other, and it's fun when you win to look at them walking out of your building with their heads down. I think they should keep playing once a year."
No changes to starting lineup
Though Brice Massamba's first start of the 2010-11 season didn't go so hot last Thursday against CMU, he'll get a shot at some redemption.
The junior, who started 16 games a year ago, went without a point or a rebound, fouling out after 10 minutes in the 73-47 rout. He'll start again on Wednesday against BYU along with Bellfield, Willis, senior Derrick Jasper and junior Chace Stanback.
Meanwhile, sophomore Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas, who was moved to a reserve role to help him avoid chronic early foul trouble, had a nice eight-point, eight-rebound showing in 17 minutes off the bench against the Chippewas.
On the season, Thomas is averaging 6.1 points and 4.3 boards in 14.6 minutes a game, while Massamba is posting 4.3 points and 1.9 caroms while playing 16.4 minutes per outing.