David Carter is hoping the Mountain West schedule will breathe new life into his Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team.
“It’s a fresh start,” Carter said. “Everyone is starting over. We’re not going to worry about what happened in the past.”
So far so good.
The Wolf Pack opened its second season in the Mountain West with an impressive 62-50 victory on the road at San Jose State on Wednesday night. The Wolf Pack, which lost its last eight games to Mountain West teams last year, will continue league play Saturday afternoon (3:05 p.m.) at home at Lawlor Events Center against Wyoming.
“We’re still getting used to playing with each other,” said Carter, who still has three players (Marqueze Coleman, Ronnie Stevens, Chris Brown) out with injuries. “We’re still figuring out how everybody fits together and when the other guys come back we still have to make more adjustments.”
The Wolf Pack improved to 6-8 with the win at San Jose State. Wyoming, which has yet to play a Mountain West game this season, is 9-4 and is coming off a 69-52 win over Western State on Wednesday.
“We look at our record and it’s not what we wanted so far but we feel we’re better than that,” Carter said.
The Wolf Pack’s biggest problem this season has been finding enough available players each game. Carter said Coleman, who underwent eye surgery two weeks ago, could return to the lineup on Saturday against Wyoming. Stevens, Carter said, is still probably a week or so away. Carter also said that Brown, who has been dealing with medical issues all season, will likely not play this season.
“We’ll get better when we have more depth,” said Carter, who played just seven players at San Jose State. “The guys will come back and once we find our rhythm we’ll start playing better.”
The victory at San Jose State was a step in the right direction. Victories, after all, were hard to come by last year for the Pack in Mountain West play. The Wolf Pack finished 3-13 in league play and then lost its only tournament game. Three of the losses last year were to Wyoming.
“If we can stay healthy we’ll be more consistent,” Carter said.
Senior point guard Deonte Burton has carried the bulk of the load especially since Coleman has been sidelined the past three weeks. Burton, who scored 18 points at San Jose State, has now played 249 out of a possible 250 minutes over the Pack’s last six games (two overtime games).
“I have to find a way to give him some rest,” Carter said.
Burton, who played all 40 minutes against San Jose State, turned in one of the worst games of his Wolf Pack career last Saturday in an 80-77 overtime loss to Long Beach State. He scored 19 points while playing all 45 minutes but he missed 13 of his 17 shots including all eight of his 3-point attempts. He also turned the ball over six times.
Burton was a little better at San Jose State, shooting 6-of-13 from the floor and scoring 18 points. But he also missed all three of his 3-point attempts and had three turnovers. He has now missed 34 of his last 42 attempts from 3-point range over his last seven games, an indication that maybe his legs are getting tired.
Burton is averaging 39.1 minutes a game this year. No Pack point guard has averaged as many as 35 minutes a game since Carter came to the Pack as an assistant coach in 1999-00. The most minutes a Pack point guard as played over the past 14 seasons is 34.5 by Armon Johnson in 2009-10. Burton’s career high is 34.1 last year.
Carter, though, is hesitant to take Burton off the floor with Coleman unavailable to take over the point guard duties. “I don’t want to disturb the rhythm of the game, the flow of the game,” Carter said.
The Pack has been strengthened up front by the addition of 6-foot-9 forward A.J. West the last three games. West, who missed the first 11 games because of eligibility issues, had his best game as a member of the Wolf Pack at San Jose State with 15 points and nine rebounds. West has already taken over as the Pack’s starting center with Ali Fall battling nagging injuries and Stevens out.
“This year has been a lot more challenging because we’ve had to play a lot of different lineups,” Carter said.
Carter has started nine different players this season. In 2010-11, when the Pack finished 28-7, Carter started the same five players in every game. In his first year as Pack head coach in 2009-10, he started just six different players. It would appear, though, that the Pack head coach found his starting unit. He has started the same five players -- Burton, West, Jerry Evans, Cole Huff and Mike Perez -- in the last two games.
“It’s about settling into a role and developing consistency,” Carter said.
Wyoming features 6-9 junior Larry Nance Jr. (16.3 points, 9.4 rebounds). The Cowboys, though, have a quality set of guards with Riley Grabau (11.4 points), Josh Adams (11.1), Nathan Sobey (6.9) and freshman Tre Washington. Washington is averaging just 4.3 points a game but he had 24 against Western State. The 6-9 Derek Cooke Jr. (6.2 points) helps Nance in the front court.
The Cowboys have an impressive record at 9-4 but they have played a weak schedule. Their nine victories, for example, have come against South Dakota (twice), Tennessee-Martin, Arkansas State, Jackson State, Montana State, Black Hills State, Northern Colorado and Western State.
Wyoming is also a different team this year. The Cowboys dominated the Pack last year because of 6-7 power forward Leonard Washington. Washington, who was a senior last year, bullied the Pack in the paint last year with 50 points and 30 rebounds in three victories over Nevada.
Carter, though, is confident the Wolf Pack is better equipped to handle the more physical Mountain West this season with West, Fall and Stevens. West, for example, was the difference against San Jose State.
“Last year we didn’t have a front line that could compete in the Mountain West,” Carter said. “That’s what we missed last year. Our guard play was as good as any team in the conference but we didn’t have the front line. This year, especially when we get all of our guys back, we’ll have that."