David Carter is answering a lot of questions this season.
Can he recruit? Can he get tough with his players? Can he make any other player but his point guard better? Is he really a head coach or just the last guy standing from the Trent Johnson-Mark Fox era? Can he be a difference maker as a head coach?
Before this season and as late as about three weeks ago, the answers to all those pressing questions were still a mystery. Carter's Wolf Pack, after all, had turned in two miserable seasons in the last three and was on a path to making it three in the last four. The Pack, it seemed, was well on its way to becoming a Deonte Burton-or-bust collection of one-dimensional underachievers who wouldn't play defense, fight through injuries or listen to their coach.
Well, that was three weeks ago. And now they just might be the best team in the Mountain West this side of San Diego. Don't look now but the Wolf Pack is on its way to going from worst to first in the Mountain West. The team that couldn't get out of its own way and seemed to invent new ways to lose each and every night is now on top of the Mountain West.
Yes, they are just 2-0 in league play. Yes, they are just 7-8 overall. And, yes, the two Mountain West victories have come against San Jose State and Wyoming. So that worst-to-first dream season is admittedly still in its infancy.
But one thing is certain. Carter is turning in his best season as Wolf Pack coach.
Can he recruit?
Let's put an end to that issue right now. Burton is one of the best players in school history. Cole Huff just might be the most underrated player in the Mountain West. Jerry Evans' bountiful array of talents are finally coming to the surface in his senior year. Michael Perez, a hard-nosed, smart two guard, never seems to take a bad shot and has given the entire roster a sense of stability. A.J. West just might be the biggest steal in the country from last year's recruiting class. Marqueze Coleman is a talented bundle of energy and confidence. D.J. Fenner is a star in the making. Ronnie Stevens stepped into the void in the middle when fellow big men were injured or ineligible in November and December and kept the team afloat. Ali Fall isn't always pretty but he gives maximum effort and is a nice complement to West and Stevens. And don't be surprised to see Lucas Stivrins turn into a crowd favorite before his career at Nevada comes to an end.
Carter recruited them all.
Can he get tough with his players?
Ask Devonte Elliott, Kevin Panzer, Jordan Burris and Jordan Finn. All four of them were part of Carter's first full recruiting class after Luke Babbitt and Armon Johnson abandoned Nevada for the NBA. And all of them shockingly left the program with eligibility left after last season. You don't do that if your head coach is soft and lets his players run the program. Carter, who was always the good-natured, player-friendly assistant under Johnson and Fox, turned into a demanding, no-excuses head coach last year when the program hit rock bottom. The frustrating season hardened him as a head coach and made him a much better coach in the long run.
Can he make any player but his point guard better?
A year ago the answer to that question was a big fat no. Evans, Elliott, Panzer and Burris, like Joey Shaw and Brandon Fields before them, all seemed to flat-line as players under Carter. They certainly didn't get any better. Malik Story also was the same undisciplined, shoot-first, play-no-defense coach killer that he was when he came to the program. And, to be honest, even Burton seemed to level off as a player last year.
This year, though, just about every player on the roster has taken a positive step forward in their development. Evans is finally playing with confidence. Huff has been remarkably consistent and is the type of well-rounded player you can win championships with. Burton has become a true leader and is the best player in the conference. West, Stevens and Fall have transformed the entire roster with their willingness to do the dirty work in the paint. Perez is a coach on the floor. Fenner, a wonderful, intelligent athlete, is Carter's project this year. He is breaking him down to build him back up into what will likely be one of the more well rounded players in the league before his career is over. You can also see West getting better with each and every minute he is on the floor.
Is he really a head coach or just the last man standing from the Trent Johnson-Mark Fox era?
Carter is definitely a head coach. This year, more than his previous four as head coach combined, he has made this program his own.
His first year, with Babbitt and Johnson, he was just the caretaker for Fox's leftover kids. His second year he had a bunch of freshmen who didn't know how to play at the college level. He wasn't so much a coach that year as he was a daycare provider. His third year was a mirage. The Pack beat a bunch of bad teams at home, won a lot of close games in a depleted Western Athletic Conference and got an inflated sense of its own abilities and talents. And, don't forget, that 2022-12 team was led by a holdover from the Fox era (Dario Hunt) and a local kid that just fell into Carter's lap (Olek Czyz).
And last year Carter had a nightmare of a season. His team stopped listening to him, stopped playing hard and, in the end, a fourth of the roster simply walked away. Carter looked like a guy who wished he remained an assistant. His team basically sat back and refused to rebound and play defense. Most of the roster wasn't even motivated enough to shoot, preferring simply to watch Story throw up one silly shot after another or watch Burton try to win every game in the last two minutes. It wasn't so much a Division I basketball team as it was a lazy summer league assortment of players who were more worried about getting a ride to the beach after the game.
The Johnson-Fox-Carter era looked like it was starting to fizzle out. That fizzle, though, has transformed back into a mild sizzle this year.
Carter's response to the mess of 2012-13 was to grab the program by the neck and shake some sense into it. He went out and added toughness to his roster with West and Stevens. He convinced the players that didn't quit the program to accept a team-first role or accept a seat on the bench. He didn't simply hand starting spots and minutes to players just because they were next in line (see Panzer, Elliott last year).
In short, the frustrations and disappointments of 2012-13 clearly made Carter a complete head coach. For the first time since Fox left for the riches of Athens, Georgia, Carter made it very clear that it was his team, his program, his basketball, his gym and his way or get out of the way. Yes, he finally became Johnson and Fox.
Can he be a difference maker as a head coach?
He has made all the difference in the world this year. Carter has coached three-fourths of a roster this year. Coleman and Stevens have missed a month with injuries. Fall has been in and out of the lineup with nagging bumps and bruises. West only became eligible three weeks ago. Chris Brown, the biggest guy on the roster at 6-foot-11 and 265 pounds, might never play for the Pack because of a medical condition.
The year was beginning to look like Burton-or-bust. And ugly losses to Pacific, Bakersfield, Morehead State, Omaha and Long Beach made it seem like there would be a whole lot more busts. There was legitimate concerns that Carter had simply run out of answers and solutions.
Carter, though, never lost faith as the team began the year by losing seven of its first 11 games. He was never frustrated or even angry in public like he was last year. He just quietly reminded everyone that help was on the way, that better times were ahead sooner rather than later. Of course, nobody outside the program believed him. The program, as of three weeks ago, after all, had lost 27 of its last 43 games.
Well, better times have suddenly arrived.
It turns out the difference between winning and losing was a 6-foot-9, 230-pound center with a healthy dose of Brooklyn confidence and attitude. When West finally stepped on the floor on Dec. 22 this team seemed to finally fall into place. The Pack has won three of its last four games since West arrived.
But the turnaround is just getting started. Coleman is expected back Wednesday when the Pack heads to UNLV. Stevens, who has been out with a stress fracture in his leg, will be back soon to help West and Fall inside. Roles will finally become even more defined than they have been.
After a year-long detour, the Pack is back on track and Carter is on his way to becoming the Coach of the Year in the Mountain West.
It's been a tough road for Carter at Nevada as head coach. And it will likely always be that way. He will always, after all, be compared to Johnson and Fox. It's a comparison that just isn't fair because, well, he's the only one of the three who didn't have Nick Fazekas and Kevinn Pinkney. And Carter, who arrived in Reno in 1999 with Johnson, never seems to get any credit for helping to make Johnson and Fox a millionaire in the first place.
The tournament years from 2004-07 have also grown in mythical proportions with each passing tournament-empty year. Most Pack fans think the Pack went to a couple Final Fours and won a national championship during that era when in reality it was all based on two wonderful nights in a span of 72 hours in Seattle in March of 2004.
No coach can compete with myths. Just ask Brian Polian. Carter is just as good a coach as Johnson and Fox. Different but just as good. If Carter was the one to succeed Johnson in 2004-05, he'd be the millionaire in Athens right now instead of Fox. Johnson and Fox owe their careers in large part to Carter's support and work ethic just as much as Carter owes his career to Johnson and Fox. The three of them are a package deal. It's unfair to separate them.
We owe it to Carter to finally toss away all those silly questions.