Santoro: Wolf Pack needs work on its defense
For the Tribune
RENO — The official state song of Nevada is titled “Home Means Nevada.” Unfortunately, as far as the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team is concerned, the song says nothing about that home leading to Nevada victories.
“We need to play well at home,” Wolf Pack coach David Carter said this week as his team prepared for a three-game home stand starting Saturday afternoon at 3:05 p.m. at Lawlor Events Center against Nebraska-Omaha. “We’ve already lost two.”
They’ve lost more than that lately in the not-so-friendly confines of Lawlor. Carter’s Wolf Pack has actually lost five of its last six home games dating back to last February. It is the first time the Pack has lost as many as five games in a six-game stretch at home since it lost six in a row at Lawlor from Jan. 23 to Feb. 13, 1993, in its first season in the Big West Conference and last under coach Len Stevens.
“We need to build some momentum going into conference play,” Carter said.
Omaha, a former Division II school in its third year as a reclassifying Division I school, would seem to be the perfect opportunity on which to build that momentum. The Mavericks are 7-3 but they don’t have a single player taller than 6-foot-8 and they finished just 11-20 last year in their first season in the unheralded Summit League.
The Mavericks, which lost, 81-69, at Lawlor to the Pack on Jan. 17, 2012, do give the Pack some cause for concern. They are coming off a 93-88 victory over Cal-State Bakersfield on Tuesday and the Wolf Pack lost at Bakersfield, 74-66, on Nov. 18.
So the only difference between the Mavs and Pack on Saturday might be Lawlor Events Center.
“They have very good guards,” Carter said. “They play a very fast tempo and they only lost by three (73-70) at UNLV (on Nov. 15).”
The Mavericks are led by guards Justin Simmons, Devin Patterson, Marcus Tyus and C.J. Carter. Carter is averaging 15.3 points and 3.5 assists a game, Patterson averages 12.1 points, 3.6 assists and two steals and Tyus is scoring at a 10.6 clip. Simmons, the Mavericks’ best player, averaged 16.7 points a game last year but has been injured recently. His status for Saturday is unknown.
Omaha also has a solid presence in the paint despite its lack of height. Matt Hagerbauer is averaging 7.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks, Mike Rostampour averages 8.2 points with 5.7 rebounds and John Karhoff chips in with 11.8 points and 4.1 boards.
The Mavs’ style, however, is beneficial to the Pack, Carter said.
“We do prefer a more up tempo pace,” Carter said.
The Wolf Pack, 4-6 overall and losers of four of its last five games, are coming off a 92-84 loss at California on Tuesday. The Wolf Pack is averaging 76.2 points a game, up from 67.5 a year ago. But they are also allowing 80.7 points, up from 71.9 last year.
“Going into this year I was concerned about how we would score, who would score,” Carter said. “We only had one proven scorer in Deonte (Burton, who is averaging 23.2 points a game). But scoring has turned out not to be an issue. Guys are understanding their roles a lot faster than I anticipated.”
The other end of the court is another issue all together. The Pack has allowed 80 or more points in eight of its 10 games this year. They’ve even allowed 80 or more in three of its four victories. That’s more than the previous three seasons combined when they won just two games over the course of the 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons combined when allowing 80 or more.
“The offense has been very good,” Carter said. “But the flip side of that is we have to be able to stop someone.”
The Pack’s problems on defense are a familiar one. They have yet to show an ability to keep teams out of the paint.
“What we are missing is a guy who can alter shots,” Carter said. “We need an anchor in the back. We are letting too many guys get to the rim for easy lay-ups.”
In defense of the Pack’s lack of defense is that the team is playing a bit shorthanded in the front court. Recruits A.J. West and Chris Brown have yet to step on the court this season. The 6-11 Brown has been suffering from a medical condition and West’s eligibility is being investigated by the NCAA. There is a very real possibility that neither player will play for the Pack this season.
That leaves Carter with just two reliable post players in 6-9 junior Ronnie Stevens and 6-9 senior Ali Fall. Lucas Stivrins, a 6-11 sophomore, is also available but the slight Stivrins (205 pounds), who has just five total rebounds in 53 minutes, needs to add weight and strength to become a productive player at the Division I level. Stevens has averaged 4.6 points and 3.3 boards in just under 17 minutes a game and Fall has added 4.4 points and 2.8 rebounds in 20 minutes a game. That’s nine points and 6.1 rebounds a game combined from Fall and Stevens, which is solid production from the two big men.
The problem, Carter said, is that they need help.
“I was talking to Jerry (Evans) the other day about how he is not blocking shots as much as he has in the past,” Carter said. “Cole Huff also needs to start blocking shots and altering shots a little better. Those two guys can do it. They just need to focus more on doing that.”
The 6-8 Evans blocked just seven shots last year but he did block 19 as a sophomore in 2011-12. He’s blocked just one shot in 259 minutes this year. The 6-8 Huff blocked nine shots last year as a freshman and has six already this year.
“I just think both of them have been a little timid about blocking shots because they are afraid of getting into foul trouble,” Carter said. “They want to stay on the court. They just need to be aggressive and not worry about coming in and out of the game because of foul trouble.”
The Pack also will host Iona on Dec. 22 and Long Beach State on Dec. 28 at Lawlor during the next two weeks before opening Mountain West play at San Jose State on New Year’s Day.
“We have a lot of practice time over the next few weeks and that will give us a good opportunity to get better,” Carter said. “If we maintain our offense at 76, 77 points a game and improve our defense, that will give us an excellent chance to win in conference play.”