We continue our WAC men’s basketball preview with a look at #4 Nevada.
Team: #4 Nevada
Coach: David Carter, first season
Last year’s record: 21-13 (11-5 WAC, 2nd)
Why they’re here: A new coach with a thin bench and a star or two. That might have brought Idaho out of the WAC’s basement last year, but it wasn’t enough to get the Vandals into the conference’s top tier. Now, the Wolf Pack are facing a similar situation — only this year, the WAC is even deeper and more talented. Nevada has a tough road ahead if it wants to reach the conference title game for a second straight year.
Yes, Luke Babbitt and Armon Johnson are absolute studs, but below those two the talent dropoff is fairly steep. Only five Nevada players averaged more than 4 points per game last year, and one of them — third-leading scorer Malik Cooke — transferred out. Further compounding first-year coach David Carter’s woes, two of the Pack’s blue-chip high school recruits didn’t make the grade academically. Carter isn’t new to the program, but the leap from assistant to head honcho is not an easy task. He could use a little of Merlin Verlin’s magic this season.
So Carter’s cobbled-together squad (he has nine scholarship players available) will be depending heavily on unproven freshmen like Patrick Nyeko to provide relief, and he’ll need returning backups Joey Shaw and Brandon Fields to make a big step up. With all of the other top WAC teams fairly bursting with more proven college-level scoring talent in their rotations, the Wolf Pack could simply be run ragged by the time the conference stretch drive rolls around. But don’t count Nevada out — the conference tournament is on their home floor for the final time, and the Pack would dearly like to end its run in Reno as champions.
Why they could finish higher: At the top of the WAC, teams are so tightly bunched that it won’t take much to swing the Wolf Pack into the conference lead. The tag-team of Babbitt and Johnson are so talented, they’ll be able to take the team on their backs and carry it to victory solo against the WAC’s lesser squads. As long as Carter can get solid minutes out of his role players, slow the game down and keep his stars out of foul trouble, Nevada will be able to battle hard and get itself into the mix for a favorable seed come tournament time.
Why they could finish lower: As noted above, just five players contributed the lion’s share of Nevada’s points last year — there’s not much production waiting in reserve in Reno. The Wolf Pack need both Babbitt and Johnson to have near-perfect nights every night. If either one of them has an off game, it’s going to be tough for Nevada to keep lighting up the scoreboard because the poor shooting from Shaw and Fields (.394 and .361, respectively) won’t get it done. If the Pack’s backups don’t make a significant improvement, opposing WAC coaches will be drawing up their gameplans to run Nevada into the ground.
Most Valuable Player: Luke Babbitt (16.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg, .456 fgp) — Regardless of how well the Wolf Pack do, Babbitt might get WAC Player of the Year anyway. He’s that good. Blessed with imposing size, a dancer’s footwork in the paint and the ability to nail outside shots at will, Babbitt is the most difficult player to guard in the WAC. All of that, and he was only a freshman. With a full year of seasoning, a summer of conditioning and pro scouts looking on, Babbitt’s already-splendid stat line should only get better.
Most Important Player: Armon Johnson (15.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 4.2 apg) — The glue that holds the Wolf Pack together, Johnson is one of the WAC’s top point guards, second only to Mac Hopson in his versatility and firepower. One night, he might drop 25 points — the next, dish up double-digit assists. His only weak spot is his propensity to take godawful outside shots. Johnson hit just 25 of his 90 3-point attempts, one of the worst performances in the WAC among starting guards. Memo to Armon: when you’re downtown, let someone else take the shot. Please.
Non-conference degree of difficulty: 5 — Credit where credit’s due, Nevada has the cojones to play the defending national champions on the road. In a brutal three-day stretch, the Wolf Pack will visit 2009 Colonial champ VCU and 2009 NCAA champ North Carolina. Throw in neutral-site games against Mountain West power BYU and Nebraska or Tulsa and you have the toughest non-con slate of any team in the WAC, by far.
Fun fact: Nevada has had more success in the NCAA Tournament than any other current WAC member — since joining the conference in 2004, they’ve been to the Big Dance four times, including three first-round wins and a 2004 run to the Sweet 16.
Predicted record: 18-12 (9-7 WAC)