Grading the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team heading into the start of its Mountain West season Wednesday night at Air Force . . .
The Western Athletic Conference’s Freshman of the Year two years ago and Player of the Year last year has had a bumpy start to the 2012-13 season. He’s scoring a bit more (15.7 points a game compared to 14.8 last year) but his 3-point shooting is way down (37% last year to 28% this year) and his assists are down (4.2 last year to 3.0 this year). An inconsistent Burton means an inconsistent Wolf Pack and that’s kind of what we’ve seen this year so far. There have been some highlight moments this year, like winning three games in the final minute with shots at home, but also some moments he’d like to forget (4-of-17 against Oregon and foul trouble against Yale and Cal State San Marcos). The Burton that scored 29 points in the win at Washington is the Burton the Pack is going to need in the Mountain West.
Story seems to be enjoying the usual senior season bump in numbers. He leads the team in scoring at 16.8 points a game, which is 2.5 points more than he scored over his first two seasons. He appears to be in the best shape of his Pack career, which has led to some impressive performances overall. He had 35 points four assists, 4 steals and 4 rebounds against Yale, for example, when everybody else on the team was stuck in a post-Christmas funk. He’s clearly working harder on the defensive end. His rebounds are up (3.6 from 2,8 a year ago) and he already has 19 steals, just six fewer than he had all last year. But, like all 3-point shooters, there are going to be nights when Story struggles, like when he went 4-of-16 (2-of-10 on threes) against Oregon. His 3-point shooting has also dipped this year (to .354 from .416 last year). But, for the most part, he’s had a solid year.
Burris was inserted into the starting lineup seven games ago and has filled his role well. In seven games as a starter he’s averaged 10 points and 5.7 rebounds a game. It’s really not any better than what Jerry Evans could have done but head coach David Carter seems to be more comfortable with Burris in the starting lineup this year than Evans for some reason. Burris is averaging 8.1 points and 4.3 rebounds a game overall this year in 22 minutes a game. It says a lot about this team, though, that the 6-foot-7 Burris has led them in rebounding five times and is the team’s leading shot blocker with 13. That work ethic, though, is why Burris keeps his starting job.
The part-time starter has actually come up with an offensive game this year. He seems to have developed a reliable 12-foot jumper and isn’t afraid to use it. Elliott, a .368 career shooter his first two years, is shooting .541 this year and has averaged 5.9 points a game after scoring 1.7 a game his first two years combined. That’s all well and good but Elliott is not at Nevada for his offense. The 6-foot-10 center is still just averaging 4.0 rebounds a game and he’s blocked just 12 shots all year. Elliott has only led the Pack in rebounding in two games all season. Part of the reason is because he always seems to be in foul trouble (one foul every six minutes) but the biggest reason is because all of that amazing defensive potential is still bottled up somewhere deep inside.
Panzer continues to play like a shooting guard trapped in a power forward’s body. He’s much more comfortable outside the paint. You can even see it on his face, which is very expressive. When he’s inside the paint he has trouble catching the ball and simply finishing plays under the basket. When he’s outside the paint he’s much more confident and with his size (6-9) he always seems open. And for a big guy he can run the floor very well, often finishing Pack fast breaks with dunks. He’s averaging 5.6 points and 4.4 rebounds a game, which is OK if he was a sixth man, playing 15 minutes a night. But he’s started 13 of 14 games and plays 20-25 minutes a night. The production has to increase.
Evans wants to be a starter. He has made no effort to hide that fact since he was sent to the bench in favor of Burris in Game 8. His problem, though, is that he has become one of the better sixth men in the Mountain West. Talent-wise, Evans is one of the Pack’s best players. At 6-foot-8 with long arms, he can shoot, rebound, score and play defense as well as anyone on the team. What he lacked as a starter the first seven games, though, was confidence. He kind of stood around and deferred to Burton and Story too much and by the end of the night he didn’t have any numbers for himself to speak of. Since he’s gone to the bench, though, Evans has played with much more intensity and aggressiveness and it has shown up on the stat sheet. In seven games off the bench he has averaged 9.5 points and 6.3 boards a game (almost exactly what Burris has averaged as a starter) to lift his season averages to 7.4 points and 4.9 rebounds.
The freshman has been just that -- a freshman. The Wolf Pack has been spoiled in recent years by amazing freshman point guards (Burton, Armon Johnson, Ramon Sessions). Coleman’s not there yet but, in his defense, he also hasn’t gotten the same opportunity as a starter that those other three Fab Freshmen received. But you can see the potential oozing out of him every time he steps on the court. He’s averaged four points and an assist in his 14 games (10 minutes a game). The concern here is how much he will play from here on out now that the games are getting more important. He played just three minutes at Oregon last week, for example. Burton and Story also won’t likely leave the floor for long stretches the rest of the year. Coleman, though, is the future of this program and Carter will find playing time for him, especially if the Pack needs some instant offense off the bench.
Huff started his freshman year with seven impressive, productive performances off the bench. He averaged 7.4 points and 5.4 rebounds a game in 19.6 minutes a game as a reserve. Carter then rewarded him with a starting job and, well, Huff‘s production has all but disappeared. In seven games as a starter he’s averaged a mere 4.1 points and 3.1 rebounds in 21.6 minutes a game. If Evans does get back in the starting lineup, it might be Huff’s spot that he takes. Huff has led the Pack in rebounding three times this year and all three were as a bench player. It might be asking too much of a thin (6-8, 205-pound) forward to bang with the big boys in the paint as a freshman, at least as a starter.
THE END OF THE BENCH
Keith Fuetsch, Patrick Nyeko, Ali Fall, Brice Crook and Richard Bell have combined to play 314 minutes this year which would make them, collectively, fifth on the team in minutes played. Over those 314 minutes they have contributed 39 rebounds, 43 points, 24 assists, five steals and 19 turnovers. Of course, most of those numbers have come in garbage time against the weakest teams on a very weak non-conference schedule. But there is potential here. Crook and Bell might not play the rest of the year but Fuetsch, Nyeko and Fall have a chance to earn more playing time if they prove reliable. Fall is kind of the wild card in this bunch. The Pack is desperate for a presence in the paint and his 6-9, 250-pound body is definitely a presence. But the junior college transfer has struggled (6-of-19 field goals and just 1.9 rebounds) in his 10 minutes a game. If he finds any kind of consistency a lot of the Pack’s problems will be solved.
There should be some concern despite the 9-5 record. The Pack played a lot of bad teams in its non-league schedule (as usual) and, well, never blew any of them out of the gym. They are, to be honest, very fortunate to be 9-5. But don’t be all that worried yet. Nobody, after all, expected a repeat of the 28-7 record of a year ago. And it’s much too early to truly judge this Pack team. True, this team has a lot of flaws. They don’t have a killer instinct, they seem to stop playing when they get a lead and they are very one dimensional. They rely on the jump shot too much and they will struggle to score in the paint all year. Teams with any sort of size and quickness will give them problems. We’ve seen it against teams with no size and no quickness. But Burton and Story are big-time players. It’s entirely possible that both of them, like all great players, have been saving up the best for the best competition. We’ll see rotations tightened, roles become defined and the intensity pick up from now on. But this team will only go as far as Burton and Story will carry them.