Pack to venture into conference play
The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team admits it hasn’t spent a whole lot of time thinking about its Western Athletic Conference season just yet.
“No, we really haven’t yet,” sophomore forward Luke Babbitt said after the Pack’s 78-69 victory over the Portland Pilots last Monday night at Lawlor Events Center. “We’ve really tried to stay in the moment this year and not look ahead.”
Well, that moment is about to arrive.
The Pack (8-5) will open WAC play Saturday (7 p.m.) at Louisiana Tech (12-2) followed by a Monday (8 p.m.) game at New Mexico State (7-6).
Both games will be broadcast over 630-AM. The Louisiana Tech game will be on television on Channel 21 while the New Mexico State game will be televised by ESPNU.
The Pack, winners of six of their last seven, are well aware that the level of passion and emotion will be much higher starting Saturday night in Ruston, La., than they were the first six weeks of the season.
“Yeah, definitely,” said Babbitt, who won the Wolf Pack’s game at Louisiana Tech last season with a last-second three-pointer. “It will be more intense, for sure. That’s something we have to be ready for right from the start.”
The Wolf Pack has simply dominated the WAC over the past six seasons, going 79-21 and finishing first five times and second once. The Pack, though, is well aware of the challenges it will face over the next few days.
“These games are huge,” said coach David Carter, who will be making his WAC head coaching debut at Louisiana Tech. “Those are two very tough places to play.”
Leaving the comfort of Lawlor Events Center has been enough of a challenge for the Pack this year. The Wolf Pack is just 1-5 away from home this year and that lone win was at a neutral site (Las Vegas) against a team (Tulsa) that looked like it simply wanted to go home for the holidays. The Wolf Pack is 0-4 this season on the opposing team’s floor and hasn’t won such a game since it won at Boise State last March 7.
Venturing into enemy territory, though, is just one of the obstacles facing the Pack over its next two games.
Louisiana Tech is 5-0 at home this year and has the best record in the WAC at 12-2 overall. The Bulldogs feature the conference’s leading scorer in Kyle Gibson (21.6 points a game) as well as a double-double machine in 6-foot-11 senior Magnum Rolle (12.9 points, 8.4 rebounds).
Olu Ashaolu also chips in with 9.4 boards a game. Rolle, the WAC’s best shot blocker at 2.7 a game, and Ashaolu do most of their dirty work on the offensive glass, averaging 7.2 a game combined.
The Bulldogs, who average just under 5,000 fans at each home game, are the second-leading scoring team in the WAC (80.4 points) and own the fifth-best defense (71 points a game allowed).
New Mexico State presents an entirely different set of challenges. The Aggies, who beat the Pack eight times in a row at Las Cruces from 1992-2000, are led by a pair of high-scoring guards. Jahmar Young is third in the WAC in scoring at 20.5 points a game and Jonathan Gibson is fifth at 19.0 points a game. Young and Gibson love to toss it up from long distance.
Gibson leads the WAC with 42 3-pointers made and Young is sixth with 28.
The Aggies will also present problems on the glass with Hamidu Rahman, who is fifth in the league at 9.3 rebounds a game (a WAC-leading 3.8 offensive boards a game).
The Pack, though, seems to be ready for all its challenges right now.
“The (Portland) game was the perfect game to prepare us for conference play,” junior guard Armon Johnson said. “We had to battle through it to win and that’s what it will be like in conference.”
“We continue to get better,” senior forward Joey Shaw said. “We’re playing pretty well right now, but we’re also going to get better with every game we play.”
Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State will present challenges to the Wolf Pack but the Pack will also present problems to the Bulldogs and Aggies. The Pack is the top scoring team in the WAC at 82.9 points a game and the best shooting team at .497 percent.
Babbitt, like Rolle, is a double-double waiting to happen every night at 19.8 points a game (4th in the WAC) and 9.5 rebounds a game (3rd in the WAC).
Johnson is sixth in the WAC in scoring at 17 points a game and second in assists (4.8). Dario Hunt (7.2 rebounds) is the WAC’s second-best shot blocker at 2.2 a game.
The Pack has also developed a comfort level at both Ruston and Las Cruces in recent years, winning at both sites the last two seasons. The Wolf Pack has actually won its last eight games at Louisiana Tech and three of its last five at New Mexico State.
“They are both big games but, at the same time, they are not the end of the world,” Carter said. “They are just two of 16 WAC games we’ll play this year. The most important thing is that we want to go to both of those places and make sure we compete.”