“We were in our conference season sometime around February,” Carter said Friday before conducting the Pack first practice of the season at Lawlor Events Center. “We were at the point where we knew we weren’t getting better. I had already hinted that we were going to making changes. The guys knew that and you could see that some guys didn’t want to be here.”
The Wolf Pack won just one game last season after Jan. 26. The Pack lost its last eight games of the year and 11 of its last 12 and finished 12-19 overall and last in the Mountain West at 3-13. Carter tinkered with his starting lineup more than he had in his first three seasons and the result, he said, was that some players mentally checked out on the team and the season.
“That’s the first time that‘s happened,” said Carter, when asked if he’s ever seen a Wolf Pack team in his 15 seasons with the program endure as many internal problems as last year’s team.
The good news, Carter said, is that the players who didn’t want to play for the Wolf Pack are no longer with the program. Jordan Burris, Devonte Elliott and Kevin Panzer, who all would have been seniors this year, left the program after last year. Burris, Elliott and Panzer combined to start 54 games last year and score 16.4 points a game. Jordan Finn, who sat out last season as a red-shirt junior, also left the program.
“The guys on the team this year all want to be here,” said Carter, who has a 74-58 record in four seasons as head coach. “It’s exciting when everybody wants to be here.”
The Wolf Pack opened practice on Friday with seven new faces and four open spots in its starting lineup. Deonte Burton, who has averaged 14.9 points and 3.8 assists the past three seasons, will start at point guard. The other four starting jobs are up for grabs.
“I’m real excited to be back,” said the 6-foot-1 Burton, who flirted with the NBA last season. “I want to lead this team to a Mountain West championship and some great things. This is my fourth year and I never went to the dance (NCAA Tournament). I want to get a chance to dance.”
The Wolf Pack will open the season Nov. 4 with an exhibition game at Lawlor Events Center against Montana Tech.
“We have a lot of competition for starting spots this year,” Carter said. “Last year we had guys who assumed they were starting and that hurt us as far as competition in practice.”
Sophomore backup point guard Marqueze Coleman (6-3), who averaged 4.2 points a game last year, is back as is 6-8 senior Jerry Evans (7.5 points), 6-8 sophomore Cole Huff (4.3 points), 6-9 senior forward Ali Fall (1.8 points) and seldom-used sophomore forward (6-9) Richard Bell (just three appearances last year).
Michael Perez, who was with the program last year but had to sit out the year after transferring from Texas-El Paso, is also expected to play a big role this year. The 6-3 Perez, who is mainly a shooting guard, averaged 11 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.9 assists as a sophomore for UTEP in 2011-12.
“Mike brings a lot of versatility to the team,” Burton said. “He fits in perfectly.”
The biggest question about this Wolf Pack team, Carter admitted, is in the paint. Carter and his staff spent the off-season adding a physical presence to the roster, signing juniors A.J. West (6-9), Chris Brown (6-11) and Ronnie Stevens (6-8) and sophomore Lucas Stivrins (6-11).
“The key is our ability to rebound the ball and defend inside,” Carter said. “That’s where our focus was in recruiting. Finding big guys, especially at our level, is always difficult. But I’m very happy with who we have. We didn’t want to panic and just sign the first guys we saw. We took our time and got people who fit in very well with us.”
The Wolf Pack also added freshmen guards D.J. Fenner (6-6), Stelios Papafloratos (6-4 from Athens, Greece) and Patrick Conroy (6-2). Fenner, whose father Derrick played running back in the National Football League for nine seasons (1989-97), comes to the Wolf Pack from Seattle Prep and might have the biggest impact of all the new faces this season.
“I just want to work as hard as I can and play whatever role for this team that I can,” Fenner said. “Whatever role I play, we’ll figure that out. But no matter what role I play, I know I have to do the basics and that is to play defense and rebound and be a good team player.”
“He just a freshman and you don’t want to put too much pressure on him right away,” Carter said. “But he’s a kid who wants to be on the floor. There’s no sense of urgency with him. We want him to learn at his pace and when he gets on the floor he can do the things he does well instead of trying to do too much.”
Carter said he can go a lot of different ways when figuring out his starting lineup. “We’ll see how it goes,” Carter said. “We can play a few different ways. We can be very versatile.”
The Wolf Pack will have 30 practices and one exhibition game before its first regular season game Nov. 8 against Pacific at Lawlor Events Center to figure things out.
“The expectations never change,” Carter said. “We want to win the Mountain West, we want to win 20 or more games and we want to go to the postseason. That’s what this program was built on and that will never change.”