The Wolf Pack is dead behind the eyes right now. There’s no pep in their step, no passion in their purpose and no emotion in their motion.
“We were sleepwalking,” senior point guard Deonte Burton said after a walking dead 66-64 loss to the San Jose State Spartans on Tuesday night.
Sleepwalking, come to think of it, would be an improvement for this zombie basketball team right now. The Pack doesn’t have enough passion to even get out of bed.
“I can’t put my finger on it,” Carter said.
Maybe it’s because he has all 10 of his fingers figuratively, of course, around the neck of his team. He’s choking them and they are playing with a glazed look on their faces as if there’s not enough oxygen getting to their brain.
“We really don’t have any answers right now,” senior Jerry Evans said.
The loss to the Spartans, a team that can’t wait for the season to end, is the worst in Carter’s five-year run as Wolf Pack head coach. Other losses have hurt more, like the 2010 Western Athletic Conference tournament loss at home to New Mexico State and the 2012 WAC tournament loss to Louisiana Tech in Las Vegas. And the Pack has played worse in other games. A 26-point loss at Boise State and a 20-pont loss at Wyoming, both last year, come quickly to mind.
But the Pack has never played worse and with less passion and fight at home against a team so bad as it did on Tuesday against San Jose State. The Spartans are truly one of the most awful teams in college basketball.
San Jose State came to Lawlor Events Center with a 13-game losing streak and with just six wins in 25 games this year. They had not won a game in 52 days. They scored a whopping total of nine points in the second half in their last game. They hadn’t scored as many as 60 points in a game over their last eight games. They had never won a Mountain West game in their history in 13 tries before Tuesday.
If there was ever a team that would have simply run to a neutral corner and covered its eyes if it was hit with a punch, it was the Spartans. The Pack, though, never threw a punch.
Don’t forget that the Spartans aren’t just bad now. They’ve been historically bad for a long, long time. San Jose State has had just one winning season in its last 12. This year will make it one in 13. The last time the Spartans finished a season more than one game over .500 was when Bill Clinton was president in 1993-94 when they were 15-12. When this year finally mercifully comes to an end the Spartans will be able to look back on just seven winning seasons in the last 33.
The Spartans were always the perfect cure to what ails the Pack.
The Wolf Pack had won a dozen games in a row and 22 out of 23 against the Spartans. They had not lost to the Spartans since Jan. 10, 2008. Before that it was March 2, 2002. Back in 2010-11, when it seemed the Pack couldn’t beat anybody on its way to a 13-19 disaster of a season, they beat San Jose State twice in a span of just seven days. They beat them three times in a span of a month in 2008-09. They also beat them three times in 2011-12.
That’s why there are no excuses for what happened on Tuesday.
There is not a player on San Jose State’s roster that would start for the Wolf Pack. Only a few of them would even see more than token minutes off the bench. The Spartans have a nice nucleus of young talent -- much more than the Pack, by the way. But it is talent that isn’t ready to win at the Division I level.
Put the Wolf Pack and Spartans on a playground, tell the coaches to stay home, and the Pack would win by 35. Burton and four lucky guys who caught a t-shirt in the stands Tuesday night could beat San Jose State.
Burton, who now only has two home games remaining in his career, should have had the time of his life on Tuesday. He should have gone out and scored 30 points and dished out 10 assists and the Pack should have won by 25. It should have been a Pack party, a Burton Bash and just what the team needed to stop a four-game losing streak.
Instead, it was a nightmare. And it was the Spartans who were throwing a party on Tuesday. The Pack, it turned out, was the perfect cure to what has ailed the Spartans.
“The locker room is ecstatic,” freshman Isaac Thornton said after the game. “It’s like a big weight has been lifted off our shoulders.”
“Everybody in the locker room is going nuts,” freshman Jalen James said.
“These kids don’t get down even though they’ve been beat up this year,” coach Dave Wojcik said.
The Pack could take a few pointers from the beaten up Spartans on how to enjoy a season.
“You are on your home court,” Carter said. “It’s a win you have to get. You have to understand that.”
Nobody understands what has happened to this Pack basketball team the past two weeks.
“Something’s not clicking,” Evans said.
That clicking sound might actually be the sound of a ticking bomb. Carter, it seems, is about to explode again, just like he did a year ago on the way to a 12-19 season. He questioned their courage after the San Jose State game. He questioned whether some players are even playing hard. And he threatened to leave some of the slackers home this weekend and not take them to Air Force.
That’s the Carter we saw last year. A year ago he benched players. He criticized them publicly. He called them selfish. And the team quit on him and the season. But Carter didn’t care. He wanted to get rid of most of them anyway and that’s exactly what he did.
This year has been different. He’s coddled this team. He shrugged off their early mistakes and their less-than-stellar performances, at least publicly, and chalked them up to injuries and the occasional growing pain.
Well, he’s not shrugging it off anymore. The loss on Tuesday made him angry. The last home game (a loss to Fresno State) he was so mad at them he didn’t allow them to talk to the media. On Tuesday, he forced them to talk to the media and admit their mistakes.
“This one is on us,” Evans said.
Yeah, no kidding.
Although he’s acting like it, Carter denies that this is a repeat of last season.
“Nobody is quitting on the season,” Carter said. “It’s not like that.”
No, they only look as if they wish they could.
It might be time, however, for Carter to change his tactics before players start jumping off the ship again. After all, what he’s done so far -- for the last two years -- just isn’t working. Instead of coaching and coaching them until they can’t be coached no more (they obviously reached that point on Tuesday), it might be time for Carter to simply sit back and enjoy the show.
Let Burton take over. He’s earned it. Let Burton, Evans, Cole Huff, A.J. West and Michael Perez run opposing teams out of the gym. Let them play on instinct.
Let them have fun again. Let them feel as if it is OK to smile.
“We have to do something before it’s too late,” Burton said.
Carter, though, might not be capable of simply sitting back. He’s the dad, after all, who makes comments on his kids’ Facebook page and reads their Twitter comments. He teaches them how to ride a bicycle and won’t let go of the back of the seat. He lets his teen-age daughter go out on a date but then he shows up at the restaurant and sits at the next table.
It’s just who he is. It’s who he was as a player. It’s who he’s been as a coach.
But it might not be the best strategy for this group of players. And a 24-34 record the last two years -- Burton’s junior and senior years, don’t forget -- is proof that it isn’t the best strategy.
Make no mistake, Carter is a coach’s coach. He works as hard as anyone who makes a living wearing a suit and tie on a bench. He knows as much basketball as anyone. He was a smart player and he is a smart coach. He’s seen it all and he’s done it all. He truly cares about his players. He coaches the heck out of them.
Right now, though, he might be coaching the life out of them. He also might be coaching the love of the game out of them.
And they are not responding well.
It’s just who they are as players.
Burton seems to be playing with one arm tied around his back. The more West plays the more confused he looks. Evans, at times, looks like a bundle of nerves on the floor. Huff and Perez can’t seem to settle on a role from one trip down the floor to the next.
D.J. Fenner shoots jumper like he’s throwing eggs against the side of a house. Marqueze Coleman, who used to play the game with a Magic Johnson smile and enthusiasm, now just looks like a robot wearing Men In Black glasses. Ronnie Stevens, Ali Fall, Lucas Stivrins and Richard Bell could all be on the side of a milk carton, for all we know.
It's time for Carter to set this team free. It's time for Carter to ease off, let go of the back of their bicycle seat and let them fall down on their own. The time for coaching is over.
And it all starts with Burton. Carter needs to let go of the back of Burton's seat.
Burton, you see, is a thoroughbred. You can just sense that he would like nothing more than to jump out of the corral Carter has put him in the past four years and just run free and wild.
He's earned it.
Burton is as fast and strong as anybody on the floor. He’s the most talented player in the Mountain West. The NBA considers him one of the most talented players in the nation. They are not wrong. When Burton walks up the floor and passes the ball around the perimeter, opposing coaches breathe a sigh of relief and send Carter a thank you note. Nobody can keep Burton from the basket when he wants to get there. Well, nobody but his coach, that is.
Against San Jose State, though, Burton scored all of 14 points and took a mere 10 shots. That is a crime. But he’s playing with absolutely no confidence right now. He has so little confidence lately he’s not even taking the possible game-winning shot anymore. That honor on Tuesday went to Perez. Wojcik nearly sent Carter a thank you note.
Burton is a guy who should be on attack mode for 40 minutes. He should be wearing out his sneakers running up and down the court. He is a dunk poster waiting to happen. He is simply one of the most exciting players to ever put on a Wolf Pack uniform.
When he is allowed to be, that is.
Carter, though, has turned him, at times, into a mutated version of Todd Okeson. He’s turned him into, well, David Carter of St. Mary’s in the late 1980s because well, that’s what a David Carter point guard should be.
The problem is that Burton is not really a point guard just like Armon Johnson was never really a point guard. They play the point because that's how you get to the NBA. But Burton and Johnson playing point guard is sort of like having Wayne Gretzky play goalie. They can do it because they can do anything.
But their heart isn’t in it.
When Burton acts like a point guard -- like a Carter point guard -- he becomes some lifeless, watered down version of himself. He shoots the ball just 10 times and scores just 14 points. And the Pack loses to one of the worst teams in the nation at home.
You know when we see the real Deonte Burton? It can happen at anytime, when the mood hits him, when Carter is looking the other way or when he forgets he is supposed to be a point guard. But it most frequently happens when the game needs to be won in the final minute. It’s the only time when Carter cuts the apron strings, calls a timeout and says, “Deonte, go win the game.”
But lately that isn’t even happening. All we’ve seen lately is Burton trying to make his teammates happy. He seems to be trying to make NBA scouts happy. He seems to be trying to make his coach happy.
The end result is that everybody is miserable.
This Wolf Pack team has become tentative, unsure of itself and seemingly hesitant to do anything that might not be in Carter’s playbook. They are allowing players they wouldn’t choose on the playground beat them in a Division I game. It’s almost as if they aren’t being allowed to do any of the things that got them to Division I basketball in the first place. You know, like playing with an unbridled joy, passion and hunger and letting their God-given athletic talents take over.
“Our margin of error is small,” Carter said. “We aren’t talented enough to overcome the things we’ve been doing.”
It might be time to simply let that talent flow and find out.