No Deonte Burton and Cole Huff? No problem.
Nevada is 2-0 following a victory over Cal Poly on Saturday and a win against Adams State on Monday night. While the team has certainly missed the scoring outputs of both Burton and Huff (the two combined for 32.5 last points per game last season), the current Nevada squad has changed its strategy to focus on defense, depth and efficiency with some solid results. With plenty of new faces on the team (five players that were not in Reno last year saw action on Saturday), the Wolf Pack has had a promising start to the season.
The game against the Mustangs on Saturday illustrated the attention to detail that will make or break the Wolf Pack this season. In this case, Nevada played well with the ball by only having three turnovers and they devastated Cal Poly in the second half by outscoring them by 17 points in the period.
Also unlike the exhibition game against Cal State San Marcos, Nevada did not need junior point guard Marqueze Coleman to shoot the lights out for them to be victorious. The Pack had 24 points off of the bench and had three guards in double digit point totals (Coleman, Michael Perez and D.J. Fenner).
The 65-49 win was certainly an improvement over last season’s game against Cal Poly. The Mustangs nearly bested the Wolf Pack last year in San Luis Obispo and then made a run to the NCAA Tournament after winning the Big West Conference Tournament. So the emphatic 16-point win illustrated a more complete effort this time from Nevada.
The key difference from last season, aside from the departures of Burton, Huff and Jerry Evans Jr., is the emergence of center AJ West. The junior had five blocks in the first half and disrupted Cal Poly enough for them to eventually opt to shooting more threes as opposed to driving inside. This turned out well for the Pack, as the Mustangs ended up making 18.2 percent (4-22) of their shots from behind the arc.
Without its three leading scorers from last year, Nevada has had to rely more on defense and rebounding this season. This is evidenced by head coach David Carter’s commitment to finding more big men to bolster the depth in his frontcourt, which turned out well on Saturday, as every forward on the roster racked up playing time and the Pack took home the victory.
West’s presence loomed large for Nevada as he finished with six blocks and eight rebounds. The center acknowledged, after the game, that aside from him, the frontcourt is much better from last season.
“It’s tremendous having so many guys off the bench to come in [and make an impact],” West said. “We have a lot of depth at those positions.”
With West cleaning up the inside, the Pack took off in the second half by shooting 50 percent (15-30) from the field. Perez mentioned that this Nevada team has a different mentality going into the second half of games.
“As a basketball team, going into the second half we call it ‘winning time’ and it’s just the time for guys to make plays,” Perez said.
However against Adams State, Nevada struggled in the second half, but still pulled out the victory. Despite being outscored by six points, the Pack held off the Grizzlies, 69-64. Fenner had 18 points and AJ West grabbed 18 rebounds. The Nevada bench added 11 points.
Coach Carter was impressed by his bench from Saturday’s game, but stressed that the victory was still a group effort.
“Ronnie Stevens, even Tyron [Criswell] had some good baskets down the stretch and Lucas [Stivrins] gave us a basket in the first half,” Carter said. “It’s not just one person, I always tell them they have to come in collectively and contribute. We had 24 points off the bench which is a big thing for us and just shows we have a little more depth this year.”
With wins over Cal Poly and Adams State, Carter is now in a tie for sixth place all-time at the University of Nevada with 91.
The head coach emphasized that this change in identity, from a team that prefers to outscore opponents to one that wears them down, is going to be a key facet for this year’s Wolf Pack.
“Offensively, I think if you harp on it too much because I think your team becomes selfish,” Carter said. “Defense is more of a team concept and the offense is going to take care of itself because that is what you recruit for… and you just have let their talent fall into our system.”
Chris Boline can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @CDBoline.